MINNEAPOLIS – The celebratory cheering and hollering from the defensive side of the visiting locker room inside U.S. Bank Stadium told the real story of the Packers' 23-10 emotional win over the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night.
For weeks, Green Bay's defense felt like it was doing all the right things and coming into its own at the right time during victories over the New York Giants, Washington and Chicago. It just needed that one statement game to tie it all together.
Look no further than Monday night's NFC North showdown with the Vikings. In perhaps its finest 60-minute performance of the year, Mike Pettine's unit held Minnesota to only 139 total yards of offense and seven first downs, including 4-of-15 on third down.
Led by Za'Darius Smith's 3½-sack night, Green Bay held the Vikings to only 82 net passing yards (thanks in part to minus-40 yards off five Green Bay sacks), and 10 points – all of which came after offensive turnovers in the first half.
In drives in which Minnesota started from its own territory, the Vikings punted eight times, turned the ball over twice on downs and saw their most promising drive end with a Kevin King interception in the third quarter.
"They were unbelievable. Unbelievable," 10th-year right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "Having a defense do that in this place against that team, I don't think I've seen it. I don't think you guys have seen it in a long time. They did it. They played their (butts) off."
Playing inside one of the NFL's most hostile environments, the Packers had their backs against the wall early after an Aaron Jones fumble on the opening drive gave Minnesota the ball at the Green Bay 10-yard line.
The defense held its ground, forcing the Vikings to settle for a Dan Bailey 23-yard field goal. Minnesota scored its only touchdown in the second quarter after starting from the Green Bay 26 following an Aaron Rodgers interception. But the Vikings went four-and-out later before halftime despite a Davante Adams fumble giving them the ball at midfield.
Only down 10-9 at halftime despite the three giveaways, the Packers' defense felt like it could get the stops and takeaways needed to allow the offense to settle in.
Green Bay's defense started the third quarter with a three-and-out to seize the momentum.
"We came in here at halftime and told those guys to continue doing what y'all doing," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Defensively, we can win this game and that's what happened. (The offense) obviously didn't turn the ball over in the second half but they were able to march downfield and get touchdowns, and we were able to win the game."
The second half belonged to Smith and the defensive front. After registering one sack for a 13-yard loss in the first half, Smith was relentless in his pursuit of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.
He contributed to three sacks of Cousins in the second half, finishing the game with seven tackles (five for a loss), five quarterback hits and a career-high 3½ sacks to push his total to a team-high 13½ on the year.
Preston Smith, who shared a fourth-quarter sack with Za'Darius, said his close friend played "like a man possessed." Snubbed for the Pro Bowl last week, Za'Darius continued to reiterate all he's thinking about is the Super Bowl – and the celebratory hat for winning the NFC North.
"It means a lot because I told the guys … the only thing I want for Christmas is a hat and a T-shirt and they came through with it man," Za'Darius said. "My Christmas gift is here already and I'm happy."
King nabbed his team-high fifth interception midway through the third quarter and returned it 39 yards to the Green Bay 47. The Packers parlayed the takeaway into an eight-play, 53-yard series that ended with an Aaron Jones 12-yard touchdown run.
Green Bay's defense kept its foot on the gas and never afforded the Vikings any real chance of mounting a late comeback after Green Bay scored 20 unanswered points to take a 23-10 lead. Cousins faced constant pressure down the stretch, causing Minnesota to punt on fourth-and-24 with 3:41 remaining.
Za'Darius' last sack on third-and-6 with just over two minutes remaining sealed the statement victory.
"It's big because they got out with those three turnovers real quick, and we had to respond," King said. "We did a good job on defense eliminating big plays, those turnovers not turning into touchdowns that was huge, but you've got to really try to stay focused because it's a close game and you know it's going to come down to four quarters, so it's just the next-play mentality."
There was a lot of excitement in the postgame locker room and understandably so. The Packers' defense enjoyed a solid September before running into some midseason adversity.
Almost completely healthy for the past month, the defense slowly started to rediscover its groove in New York and carried that performance through to Monday night.
Now all that separates the Packers from a first-round bye is this upcoming Sunday's regular-season finale against Detroit. Despite the Lions' 3-11-1 record, Green Bay is not taking them lightly.
"We've been growing each and every week. It's not an overnight thing," safety Adrian Amos said. "We just have to grow. Next week, we have to put on an even better performance. We can't take any steps back. We gotta keep ascending."