Packers change the narrative, position themselves for more

Leadership has guided Green Bay through tough moments

QB Aaron Rodgers
QB Aaron Rodgers

MINNEAPOLIS – The "house of horrors" narrative was picking up steam again.

Then the Packers put a stop to it.

"It feels great to win these kind of games," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said not long after a 23-10 triumph over the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium secured the NFC North title in a place that had not been kind to the Packers generally, nor Rodgers specifically.

"To be back on top of the north after a couple years being down, to win in this stadium, where a couple years ago I was jeered leaving the field after breaking my collarbone … it feels pretty good."

This game was about more than atonement and the fourth time being the charm, though. It displayed the type of leadership the Packers have, from Head Coach Matt LaFleur on the sidelines to Aaron Rodgers under center to Za'Darius Smith wreaking havoc.

Turning the ball over three times in their first six possessions, the Packers looked to be in trouble. But between the defense rising up and the offense staying calm amidst the storm, the team stayed right where it needed to be.

A month ago, a rough start at San Francisco snowballed into an even rougher loss. Not so Monday night, Green Bay's fourth straight win since that West Coast defeat.

"That's when you lean on those guys," LaFleur said of the team's leaders. "Because they're able to stabilize the group and keep us on the right track. That game could have gotten ugly really fast."

But it didn't because LaFleur and Rodgers, despite an interception, two fumbles, some off-target throws and dropped passes in the first half, stuck with the plan. And because Smith just kept balling out.

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On Smith's 3½-sack night in the biggest game of the season to date, Rodgers drew a comparison to the Packers' last big defensive free-agent signing, Julius Peppers back in 2014.

More outgoing publicly than Peppers, Smith commands a similar amount of attention from his teammates in all ways and places.

"It's an energy, it's a force. He just has a great presence about him," Rodgers said. "When he talks, guys listen. He's meant a lot to our success in more ways than just his play on the field.

"Guys who can singlehandedly take over games, it covers up for a lot of stuff on a squad. We're pretty lucky to have him."

Rodgers sensed in training camp, not just with Smith but with the team in general, that the Packers could have something special in LaFleur's first year.

The veteran QB felt that the defense was "different," with a "different feel to it," and that LaFleur's vision and message were sinking in. LaFleur got the buy-in from leaders like Rodgers and Smith from the get-go, and from there the new coach began "allowing the players to be themselves," Rodgers said.

It all reached its first peak Monday night with a raucous celebration in the winning locker room after the game, with the NFC North championship gear getting handed out and all the hoots and hollers clearly audible through the walls.

"It's really sweet, to celebrate in the locker room with those guys," Rodgers said. "A lot of guys weren't here in '16 when we got to put these hats on. That was a sweet run, winning six in a row and finishing it off in Detroit.

"There's nothing like checking off the first box on that goal list … and we're playing for even more coming up next week."

As division champs, the Packers have assured themselves a home playoff game. They can delay it to the second round with a win next week at Detroit to earn a first-round bye.

Get that and some help from Seattle against San Francisco next Sunday night and the Packers will earn the No. 1 seed and make the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC go through Lambeau Field, where the Packers are 7-1 this season.

Rodgers made his lone Super Bowl appearance nine years ago with an all-road playoff run but knows "that's a tough way to go." The Packers haven't played a divisional-round game at home since '14 and Rodgers has never had the NFC title game at Lambeau.

"Especially with how deep this playoffs and the NFC is, it's nice to have a chance to have some games at home," Rodgers said. "I said earlier in the season, just getting in gives you a legitimate shot, but knowing we could have two home games to get somewhere special changes the whole dynamic."

Green Bay Packers players celebrate after 23-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings to clinch the NFC North title.

The T-shirts say "The North is not enough," and frankly, Monday night's performance was flawed enough the film review and preparation for a downtrodden Detroit team this week should still capture the team's focus.

The Packers showed what they can overcome in Minnesota, but in doing so they still haven't played their best game. If they can summon it at the right moment, watch out.

"The good thing is the mistakes are really on our side, things we just haven't done at times," Rodgers said. "There's going to be a time we need to make those plays, and I expect to."

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