Yesterday’s game between the Packers and Vikings was supposed to be a statement game. If so, Green Bay said something.
That it’s not quite time to pass any torches. The Packers may have lost three straight, but they weren’t ready to concede their chokehold on the NFC North, the old, black-and-blue NFC Central, a kind of embryo of the modern NFL, the land of Lombardi and Lambeau and the Purple People Eaters.
While Teddy Bridgewater has been a beacon for the Vikings, he’s still a few rungs below the best. For now, No. 5 doesn’t quite add up to No. 12.
Even when not in pristine form, Aaron Rodgers can still spread the ball like butter across the secondary. Six different Packers caught at least one pass from the passer nonpareil. In a sport that leans so heavily on every part, no player can improvise quite like Rodgers, who makes mediocre players look good, and sends good players to the Pro Bowl.
While the Vikings (7-3) are the feel-good story of the league (along with the Panthers), the Packers (7-3) aren’t quite quitting or surrendering their post. After gagging the NFC title game to Seattle, Green Bay darted out to a 6-0 record. Then they seemed to short-circuit, losing games, and their way, An awful loss to the Lions was the first at Lambeau Field since George Bush (the elder) was president.
Then, when the world was ready to drive the stake through their season, Green Bay bounced back, against their rivals, in a most rancorous setting. If you thought the Packers were just a Wisconsin contrivance, they just proved that they can be road warriors when needed.
While Jordy Nelson — Aaron Rodgers’ top target in their pyrotechnic offense — is on the shelf for the year, they can still burn under the brightest lights. James Jones returned to early-season form. Randall Cobb caught a crucial touchdown. Davante Adams is back in the huddle after a string of injuries. And James Starks is a useful, utility running back in the flat.
Eddie Lacy, the burly, bruising running back who lost his job to Starks, found his mojo in the second half, bowling his way to vital first downs, Vikings defenders hanging from his jersey. Lacy posted his first 100-yard game in some time, though at the right time.
Julius Peppers & Co. still had a few big sacks left in the bag, dragging Bridgewater to the turf six times. Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix was less than humorous to the Vikings, with eight tackles and a sack. Clay Matthews showed he can still catch anyone on the field, and flex his Predator pose over his prostrate victims.
There’s something comforting about football in the Midwest. The game was invented in Ohio, and perfected in Green Bay. While Dallas may have the moniker of America’s Team, and my beloved Black & Gold may have the most Super Bowl rings, the trophy is still named after the patron saint of the Packers.
It speaks to George Halas and Vince Lombardi and Bud Grant, to paraphrase John Facenda, to duels in the rain and cold November mud. And just as it was in the 1960s, and again since the early 1990s, the Packers have a provincial hold on the division.
They have that hold because of their quarterbacks. Ever since the NFL bent the rules to make the game a more pass-happy affair, the game became quarterback-dependent to the point of addicted. Unless you have the 2000 Ravens defense (and who does?), your fortunes hang on the blessed limb of your best thrower.
We can talk about how the Packers do things the right way, with more home-grown players than any team in the league. They even have the perfect model of management, literally owned by their fans. But their true football serendipity was trading for Brett Favre 25 years ago, and then drafting Rodgers 10 years ago. They went from one Hall-of-Fame QB to HOF 2.0.
Hence the clamoring for Green Bay to pry open their wallets and draft board to fetch one more receiver for Rodgers. He may have many years — and a few hundred touchdowns — left in his divine right arm, but Rodgers is in his prime now. And he won’t be in five years. So strike while No. 12 can still throw strikes. He’s too good to expose to a middling receiving corps. The difference, right now, between the Packers and Vikings? Quarterback.
For his part, Bridgewater was pretty good yesterday (25-37, 296 yards, 1 TD), and his game is still climbing a clear arc. In fact, he was statistically equal to Rodgers (16-34, 212 yards, 2 TDs). But the only stat that truly matters is the final score. It’s a lesson Aaron Rodgers and the Packers learned long ago.
The Vikings can already pass the test. They just haven’t quite aced it.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.