GREEN BAY—In the swirling snow that painted a wintry picture at Lambeau Field on Sunday night, the Packers found more than a 27-20 win that has them a win away from clinching the NFC North title. They found something that might be a difference maker in January. The Packers found a running game.
It was early in the fourth quarter of a game that was tied, 17-17. The Packers took possession of the ball at their 41-yard line following a missed field goal attempt by the Lions' Jason Hanson. Seven plays later, the Packers had the lead.
They were more than just seven plays. They were seven running plays. Yeah, the Packers, the poster child for finesse football, shoved it down the Lions' throat with a three-headed running game that began with Alex Green carrying the ball, shifted for one play to Ryan Grant, and then culminated with little-known roster jockey DuJuan Harris exploding for 14 yards and a touchdown.
As a result, the Packers can clinch their second consecutive NFC North title with a win at Soldier Field next Sunday. Imagine that, a season that saw the Packers slump to 2-3 early and take on the look of a team chasing a wild-card berth, has the Packers chasing a division title and possibly a first-round playoff bye.
Was Sunday night's win over the Lions the game that launched the Packers as a hot team? If it is, it might be that seven-play touchdown drive that was this season's game-changer. Maybe it'll give the Packers the running game threat they need to open the passing lanes for Aaron Rodgers.
"We're just waiting for some one-eyed coverages," Rodgers said, referring to the single-high safety coverage quarterbacks craze, instead of the two safeties in the middle of the field Rodgers has seen on a weekly basis this season. Beating the Packers has always been about stopping Rodgers, until Sunday night.
"Hopefully, this will give us an opportunity to be a more balanced offense, get Jordy (Nelson) back and have all cylinders firing and a running game to boot," Rodgers added.
It was a seven-play drive in which Head Coach Mike McCarthy committed to running the ball. He sent backup rookie offensive lineman Greg Van Roten into the game as an extra blocker. The finesse Packers of spread-the-field fame bunched up and went heavy. Move over Alabama.
"It's about matchups. Just trying to do some things different. It's the wrinkle you try to do differently from the first time you play them to the second time," McCarthy said of the adjustment he made to a power running game in the fourth quarter.
"We want to be playing the right way at the right time," Rodgers said.
Being able to run the ball as effectively as you throw it is the right way to play.
"That's what the linemen want. That's what the backs want. That's the way you play football in December," McCarthy said.
All of a sudden, the Packers have a new identity, and it would seem to be the extra ingredient this team has needed all season, which it seems to be finding at the most important time of the season, when one more thing can make all the difference.
Rodgers has long been the one ingredient on which the Packers can depend, but his numbers have been shrinking as defenses focus more intently on stopping him. In Sunday night's win over Detroit, Rodgers' biggest play of the game was a 27-yard touchdown scramble that gave the Packers their first lead of the night, 17-14, four minutes into the second half.
McCarthy was able to look past the stats and see a victory that was about a lot more than stats. He saw a defense rebound from having allowed touchdowns in the Lions' first two possessions of the game. He saw, maybe felt, his team begin to take on the spirit of a late-season bloomer.
"The thing that stood out to me is the way they kept fighting. The takeaways were huge," McCarthy said, referring to rookie defensive lineman Mike Daniels' 43-yard touchdown return of an unforced fumble by Lions quarterback Matt Stafford, and cornerback Sam Shields' drive-killing interception when the Lions appeared to be on the way to increasing their 14-10 lead.
"Fun game to play in. We've put ourselves in position to win the division next week in Chicago," McCarthy said.
Even more importantly, the Packers have put themselves in position to be the hot team in the NFC in January. Additional coverage - Packers vs. Lions