MINNEAPOLIS — No one talks about the Green Bay Packers, and it isn’t hard to understand why.
In a regular season dominated by young quarterbacks, the Packers have an old one who might have seen better days. In a year when we’ve seen the Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints innovate dominant offenses, the Packers are boring and predictable and rank ninth in scoring among the 10 teams that have qualified for the playoffs.
The Packers dare you to sustain patience beyond any reasonable measure. I lost mine around midseason, when they fell flat against the Los Angeles Chargers, were blown out by the San Francisco 49ers and struggled to beat the likes of the Carolina Panthers, New York Giants and Washington Redskins.
But here they are. The Packers have made a season of winning “ugly” games. They’ve won 12 of them — as many as any NFL team this side of the Ravens has won — and it’s getting tougher to overlook them.
The Packers, after all, didn’t just clinch the NFC North title with a 23-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Monday. They also put themselves in good position to earn a first-round playoff bye and have a decent chance — 30%, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index — to wind up with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
It isn’t out of the question that the path to the Super Bowl will go through Lambeau Field.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on looking pretty or dominating in the way that fits expectation,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “But … it doesn’t matter how we get it done as long as we get it done.”
That was certainly true Monday night. Rodgers finished with a 36.8 Total Quarterback Rating, his seventh sub-40 performance of the season. The Packers trailed until 2:03 remained in the third quarter. They gifted the Vikings all 10 of their points through turnovers, and coach Matt LaFleur refused to abandon a plan to establish running back Aaron Jones. His patience was rewarded, even if it tortured the game’s viewers. Jones’ rushing production increased by every quarter, and he had 109 yards and two touchdowns after halftime on the way to a 154-yard game.
Anthony Harris picks off Aaron Rodgers to start the second quarter for the Vikings.
It helped, of course, that the Packers’ defense overpowered the Vikings’ offense line and limited them to 57 rushing yards and seven first downs, their lowest total in a home game since 1971. If you want to be snarky, you’ll note that the Vikings were missing their top two tailbacks, Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison, and that quarterback Kirk Cousins was stumbling through his usual Monday night jitters. Regardless, Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said, “Our defense kept us in the game and let us be us for four quarters.”
“We’ve had a change in our identity,” Bakhtiari added. “I think everyone around us is used to a high-powered offense that is going to light up a scoreboard. But we’re a balanced team.”
Twelve victories in 15 regular-season games proves, by definition, that the Packers have a winning formula. There is a fine line between being balanced and being mildly capable on either side, and the Packers have straddled that line for most of the season. But most of their players jaunted through the locker room Monday night with shirts that read “The North is not enough.” They argued that winning in unassuming fashion has built a battle-tested team that is primed for a deep playoff run.
Kicker Mason Crosby, who has played in every Packers playoff game since 2007, said he has no doubt that this team has the same ingredients as some of the franchise’s best teams of the century.
“We are one of those teams that finds ways to win,” he said. “We’ve had a couple unfortunate ones get away from us when we didn’t play our best. But this team has a passion and energy that is hard to describe. I look back at some of our really good teams here, and we just kind of have that X factor, the thing that tells you that any game we play, we can find a way to win.”
It’s one thing to find a way to beat the Panthers or Redskins or Giants — or even a Vikings team playing without one of its best players. But can the Packers really beat the 49ers, Saints or Seahawks in the playoffs?
Everyone has an opinion, and here’s mine: They can’t do it by following Monday’s formula. To wear out an opponent with the running game requires a defense that holds a high-end offense at bay. It’s true that the Packers held their past four opponents to 15 or fewer points per game, but those opponents included the No. 31 scoring offense (Redskins), the No. 30 (Bears), the No. 19 (Giants) and the Vikings without Cook and Mattison.
To win playoff games, the Packers will need something from Rodgers that they haven’t gotten or even asked for: a performance that matches some of his singular playoff games, from the 2010 divisional playoff against the Atlanta Falcons to the 2016 divisional game against the Dallas Cowboys. That’ll get us all talking about the Packers again, not for aesthetic reasons but for competitive ones, instead of noting that Rodgers now ranks 21st in the NFL in QBR (52.2).
“I’ve always just tried to do what the team needed,” Rodgers said. “There have been times over the years when I needed to do some of those things I’ve done over the years. This year it’s different, based on the personnel we have and the scheme that we’re running. I’m trying to be opportunistic, but we’ve got a pretty good run game going.”