y light-text”>Green Bay Packers cornerback Keisean Nixon (25) celebrates with fans after returning a kickoff for a … [+] touchdown against Minnesota on Sunday.
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When the Green Bay Packers lost to Philadelphia in Week 12, they fell to 4-8 on the year and their odds of reaching the postseason were a dreary 1%.
What a difference a month makes.
The Packers routed arch-rival Minnesota, 41-17, Sunday. Green Bay improved to 8-8 after its fourth straight win and amazingly, now controls its playoff fate.
“I had faith,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Sometimes you’ve got to fool yourself a little bit into believing a little bit more. But I definitely had faith I was going to go down scrapping, for sure. But I do believe in the power of manifestation and I do believe in momentum and I believe very strongly in the force of the mind. And when you start to believe something strongly, some miraculous things can happen.”
Green Bay, Detroit and Seattle (all 8-8) are tied for the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC. The Packers and Lions will meet in Week 18, and if Green Bay wins, it clinches the final wildcard spot.
Green Bay will enter that contest brimming with confidence after routing Minnesota in its finest performance of the 2022 season.
“This is the identity that we thought we were going to have,” Rodgers said. “It just took a long, long time to get there.”
Here’s the good, bad and ugly from Green Bay’s win over the Vikings.
DOMINANT DEFENSE: The Packers chirped throughout the offseason how they’d have one of the NFL’s top defenses in 2022. That seemed reasonable, too, considering Green Bay ranked ninth in total defense in 2021, then used a pair of first round draft picks on the defensive side of the ball.
For most of the year, though, the Packers’ defense has disappointed, and they entered Sunday ranked 17th in both total defense and scoring defense. But in Green Bay’s biggest game of the year, its defense stole the show.
The Packers limited Minnesota to three points until the final minutes and forced four turnovers.
Safeties Darnell Savage, Adrian Amos and Rudy Ford all had interceptions. Defensive end Kenny Clark also had a strip sack of quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Green Bay scored 28 points off of takeaways, its most in a game since Oct. 9, 2005, vs. New Orleans (31 points).
“We’re playing good football and we’re playing together,” cornerback Jaire Alexander said. “That’s all that matters.”
Green Bay’s defense made an enormous goal line stand early, keeping Minnesota out of the endzone after it started at the Packers’ 1-yard line. And they continued to dominate the rest of the day.
“We knew it was over from the jump,” Douglas said. “We knew as soon as we went out there and we got that goal line stand that it was over. We just seen everything and knew we had to keep pressing and stop and (not) give them plays.”
Green Bay defensive coordinator Joe Barry gave Alexander that chance Sunday and he delivered.
Alexander followed Justin Jefferson — arguably the best receiver in football — for much of the game and held him to one catch for 15 yards. In the Week 1 meeting between these teams, Jefferson had nine catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns when Green Bay opted not to shadow the elite pass catcher.
“Any time you’ve got the best on the best, who wouldn’t want to wake up to that,” Alexander said. “I thought about that all week. I’ve been ready.”
Jefferson entered the game with 123 receptions this season for 1,756 yards and eight touchdowns. And Jefferson clearly had the 2,000-yard mark in his sights.
But after Alexander shut Jefferson down Sunday, that lofty goal seems unlikely.
“I thought Ja just, he challenged him,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “There were a couple times he implemented some quick jams where he was very physical at the line of scrimmage. I thought, anytime DBs do that, you’re not always expecting it, especially if you haven’t seen it a ton on tape, and that’s always a challenge.
“I don’t care who you are as a wide receiver, it’s always a challenge. I thought that was a great job by our staff, a great job by Ja, and really all other 10 guys on the field to be able to do their job off of whatever call was being made.”
How was Amari Rodgers Green Bay’s primary return man for nearly half the season?
Nixon became the Packers’ kick returner in Week 8 at Buffalo and has been the best in the league ever since.
Nixon’s brilliant season continued Sunday, when he returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown to give the Packers a 7-3 lead. It was Green Bay’s first kickoff return for a TD since Week 1, 2011, when Randall Cobb had a 108-yard return for a score against New Orleans.
“It meant everything,” Douglas said of Nixon’s TD. “It was good. We needed it. I think I beat him to the end zone, too, when I was running because I knew he was going. I knew he was going to the house.
“They drew that up all week. If you hit it, you’re going to the house. He did a good job. I’m so happy for him.”
As recently as Friday, Nixon (groin) didn’t think he would play. But Nixon woke up Sunday, felt great and told his coaches he could go.
“I texted the coaches this morning, ‘I feel like a Ferrari,’ ” Nixon said. “Came here, just ran around, I’m like, ready to go. So I’m playing.”
Green Bay’s blocking on Nixon’s touchdown was sublime. Nixon shot up the middle of the field, made kicker Greg Joseph miss, then outran all of the Vikings to the endzone.
“I didn’t literally have to do nothing but make the kicker miss,” Nixon said. “I just ran straight and guys blocked their ass off. Know what I’m saying. Just got to reward ‘em.”
Nixon leads the league with five kickoff returns of 50-plus yards on the season and no other player has more than two. That’s the most 50-yard returns by a Packer in a season since 2000 and the most by an NFL player since Jets WR Andre Roberts in 2018 (six).
“Any time that you have a returner that’s capable of taking it to the house, that energizes the guys blocking for him,” LaFleur said. “Those guys are doing an outstanding job and I really think now, it’s been a long time coming but we have a legitimate threat anytime somebody has to kick off to us.”
But Savage played well last week when Rudy Ford was injured. Savage was back in the starting lineup Sunday and made one of the biggest plays of his career.
Minnesota had a fourth-and-3 from Green Bay’s 37 with 5 minutes left in the first quarter and quarterback Kirk Cousins tried jamming a ball into tight end T.J. Hockenson. Packers’ cornerback Rasul Douglas deflected the ball and it bounced right to Savage, who made his first interception of the year.
Savage raced from his own 25-yard line to midfield, then darted left, where he picked up a convoy of blocks. Cousins was the last player with a chance to catch Savage, but Preston Smith knocked the quarterback to the ground and Savage waltzed in for a 75-yard TD.
“You’ve got to give Darnell a ton of credit,” LaFleur said. “Some guys won’t respond that way and I think that speaks to who he is as a man. We take him out and I think he’s responded the right way, and that’s what it takes sometimes in this league. You’ve got to be a pro.
“Just super-proud of, obviously, he had the splash play, the pick-six, but it’s all the little things that you see. I thought he was physical, he was throwing his face in there. Those are the things that we comb over every play and just really, really, really happy with how he’s responded and I think he’s stacked two games back-to-back and played really good football.”
Savage posted the longest interception return for a touchdown by a Packer since Casey Hayward’s 82-yarder against Chicago on Nov. 9, 2014. And the interception TD was the first of Savage’s career.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Savage said of losing his starting job last month. “I feel like life throws you tests. You’ve got to kind of fight back and bounce back. I felt like I handled it the right way. And I’m being rewarded for it right now. Just keep going, keep pushing and keep working.”
RUN TO GLORY: Teams that can run the ball in December and January are usually tough to beat.
Green Bay’s running game was tremendous against Minnesota, as the Packers piled up 163 rushing yards on 33 carries (4.9 average).
Aaron Jones led the way with 111 yards on just 14 carries (7.9). A.J. Dillon added 41 yards and a touchdown and Green Bay’s offensive line got the better of Minnesota’s defensive front throughout.
MASON CROSBY: The Packers activated kicker Ramiz Ahmed on Saturday and planned for him to handle kickoffs and potentially long field goals. But Ahmed was hurt in warm-ups, so veteran Mason Crosby handled everything — and did so with aplomb.
Crosby drilled a 56-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, a kick that hit the crossbar and bounced over. It was the longest field goal by a Green Bay kicker in Lambeau Field history and the second-longest of Crosby’s career.
In addition, Crosby handled kickoff duties.
“You gotta have a little luck every once in a while,” Crosby said of his long field goal. “I hit a good enough ball that whatever happened in that situation, I knew I hit it the way I needed to. Very happy. It was a fun moment.”
Washington made the questionable decision to bench quarterback Taylor Heinicke for Carson Wentz blew up in his face. Wentz threw three interceptions, no touchdowns and had a dreadful passer rating of 31.4.
“I have high expectations for myself and this team, and we underperformed — I did, myself, as well,” said Wentz, who was 16 of 28 for 143 yards. “That’s not what I had in mind and what we had in mind as a team. Not the performance I envisioned. A lot of stuff I want back. Yeah, that was a tough one.”
A tough one for Washington, but a terrific one for Green Bay.
THIS AND THAT: Adrian Amos had his first interception of the year and the 10th of his career. Amos intercepted a pass intended for Justin Jefferson midway through the second quarter and returned it 26 yards to the Green Bay 40. … Tight end Robert Tonyan caught a 21-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, his first TD since Week 4 against New England. … A.J. Dillon had a 2-yard rushing touchdown, marking the fifth straight game he’s had a rushing TD. Dillon has six touchdowns in that five-game stretch. … Aaron Rodgers had a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown. That was Rodgers’ first rushing TD since Nov. 28, 2021 against the Los Angeles Rams. … The Packers became the first team in NFL history to have a kickoff return TD of 105-plus yards and an INT return TD of 75-plus yards in the same game.
LATE SCORES: Green Bay’s defense played its finest game of the 2022 season — and perhaps its best game of the Joe Barry-era. So granted, we’re nit-picking here.
But Kirk Cousins and Jalen Nailor hooked up for a late, 47-yard touchdown. The Packers had a busted coverage in back, Rudy Ford missed a tackle at the 20-yard line and reserve cornerback Corey Ballentine couldn’t catch Nailor.
Minnesota reserve quarterback Nick Mullens then hit K.J. Osborn for 9-yard TD pass with 21 seconds left.
THIS AND THAT: The Packers had a fourth-and-1 at Minnesota’s 39-yard line midway through the first quarter and went for it. Rodgers was sacked on the play, though, and lost 16 yards. … Quay Walker was flagged 15 yards for unnecessary roughness on K.J. Osborn midway through the second quarter. One play later, though, safety Adrian Amos bailed Walker out by intercepting a Cousins pass. … Minnesota tight end T.J. Hockenson proved tough to handle with seven catches for 59 yards.
After Green Bay’s first drive went nowhere, Minnesota safety Josh Metellus raced up the middle and blocked a Pat O’Donnell punt. Green Bay’s Dallin Leavitt picked up the loose ball at the 5-yard line, went backwards and was tackled at his own 1.
Green Bay’s defense did yeoman’s work, though, keeping Minnesota out of the endzone and forcing the Vikings to settle for a field goal.