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Story of the Packers' season: The right play at the right time

Only screen pass of the day sets up the winning points

RB Aaron Jones
RB Aaron Jones

DETROIT – So much went wrong, so much had to go right, and as has happened so often this season, it really came down to one key play.

It was a 23-20 comeback victory to remember, if not exactly one to savor.

What went wrong as the Packers fell behind the last-place Lions by 14 points on Sunday at Ford Field? What didn't?

The Packers were dropping passes, committing penalties, and doing a whole lot of missing – QB Aaron Rodgers on some throws, the defense on some tackles, and Mason Crosby on a field goal.

The Lions also caught Green Bay napping with a trick play for a touchdown, and they even scored at the end of the first half when they appeared to be running out the clock with 20 seconds left. They handed the ball off, only to break a long run and get into field-goal range anyway.

So what went right to get back in it? Better play, obviously, but also a healthy dose of good fortune.

The Lions' three-headed backfield got just eight carries in the second half despite racking up 112 rushing yards in the first half. That put protecting or adding to the lead in the hands of rookie QB David Blough, who badly underthrew Chris Lacy on a deep crossing route that linebacker Blake Martinez picked off.

Two personal fouls on the Lions, one at the end of Martinez's INT return and the other on a Rodgers slide on the game's final drive, gave the Packers 30 free yards that led to 10 points. Detroit's list goes on, too.

After 55 of 60 minutes, it was all a wash, and it came down to who could make an important play.

If there's any one single reason the Packers are taking a 13-3 record into the postseason, it's because they made that play far more often than not, and they made it again Sunday.

End-zone interceptions to preserve one-score leads, four-minute drives to close out games, goal-line sequences (one for a win, one for a loss). That's been the Packers' 2019 season.

This time, it hinged on Rodgers calling a play – a screen pass – the Packers hadn't called all day.

Head Coach Matt LaFleur said he'd never gone into a game with fewer screens in the plan, because a season's worth of film showed they didn't work against the Lions.

But on first-and-10 from the Green Bay 49 with 45 seconds left in a tie game, Rodgers called it.

"Well, we'd thrown the ball so many times and hadn't run one," said Rodgers, who calls his own plays in the two-minute drill and had 54 pass attempts in the game at that point. "I just felt like we were kind of due."

Rodgers' instincts were spot on, catching the Lions jet-rushing upfield at the snap. It still wasn't easy, as Rodgers had to maneuver in the pocket a little bit to find Aaron Jones amidst a crowd of bodies and put the short throw somewhere he could catch it.

But he did, Jones slipped through the first level, and he was off for a 31-yard gain that got the ball into Crosby's range. The rest was academic.

"I think he had a pretty good feel – a lot of times he can feel that pass rush, how those guys were rushing up front," LaFleur said. "It definitely hit at the right time."

That's been the story of the 2019 Packers. The right play at the right time. This one from the bottom of the play sheet, or the deep recesses of Rodgers' mind, take your pick.

The Packers aren't the team rolling into the playoffs clicking on all cylinders. No one can make that argument. Of the five straight wins to close the regular season, they put their opponent away only twice. The rest came down to the wire.

What that means is a matter of perspective.

"I'm not worried about that right now, I'm worried about next week," LaFleur said, as he described plans to use the bye week to self-scout and get the team healthy for the playoffs. "We just have to find a way.

The Green Bay Packers faced off against the Detroit Lions in the 2019 regular-season finale at Ford Field.

"That's what our calling card has been all year long. I know it doesn't always look pretty, but our guys are resilient and they find a way. I can't explain it, but I'm thankful for every guy in that locker room. Those guys care about each other, they battle, and you don't find that on every team you're on."

Rodgers' explanation is the myriad ways in which the Packers have won games has fostered a "belief" up and down the sideline that this team will make the play it needs to when it needs to make it.

"That belief I think carries a lot of weight in those situations," Rodgers said, speaking specifically of getting the ball on his own 17-yard line with 1:20 left. "The calmness we operate in, within those situations, allows us to focus and personally allows me to kind of get in my zone as far as what plays I want to get to."

Like the screen that hadn't been called all day. It wasn't a hang-your-hat-on type of play. Rodgers did run one of those, on a crucial fourth-and-1 when he rolled left and fired quickly to his old standby, Davante Adams, to move the chains and keep the game-tying drive alive.

This one was Rodgers' brain, on a day his arm wasn't in any kind of groove, trusting himself and his teammates with a play that in all likelihood wasn't run in practice this week with the Packers conducting only one full-speed workout on a short, holiday week.

For all of the Packers' struggles at times, Rodgers believes the team's balance – run-pass on offense with sturdy defense – has helped produce so many close victories. In fact, the total is eight by one score (eight points or less), most in team history.

A balanced team doesn't need a formula to win. It just needs opportunity, and the Packers have the best one they've had in January in five years with a first-round bye. Rodgers added the balance can "utilize the cold better" than previous teams in home playoff games.

"I think it does matter," Rodgers said of getting home-field advantage in the divisional round. "What matters a little more is the health of your football team, which is why the bye is important.

"You have to start all over in the playoffs. It's all great football teams now, so the margin of error is even smaller.

"I like our chances, I like our football team, and I like even more that we've got a week off."

More time to perhaps find yet another way.

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