It’s been a long, frustrating, often ugly season for Packer fans. Sunday, as the calendar turned to a new year, much of that got wiped away.
I’ve been to a bunch of these games over the years, and I don’t remember ever seeing that much Purple in the stands. Gotta figure a lot of Packer fans bailed on their tickets 4-6 weeks ago when everything was turning pear-shaped for the Green and Gold.
It made for quite the festive atmosphere on an unseasonably warm January day. The Skol screechers were in full throat when their squad blocked a punt on the Pack’s first series, setting the Vikes up at the one. When Green Bay’s resurgent defense held and forced a field goal, it provided a glimpse at what was in store on this afternoon.
The ensuing kickoff started the three-hour celebration. Keisean Nixon, out all week with a groin injury, housed one from 105 yards, and momentum had officially shifted. A few plays later Darnell Savage picked off a deflected Kirk Cousins pass and found himself Lambeau Leaping, and suddenly the Pack led 14-3. The Pack hadn’t had a kick return for a TD and a pick-six in the same game since I was five years old (I’m 60, by the way), and they did it in the game’s first ten minutes.
That wasn’t the dagger, but it may as well have been. The Packers are suddenly surging, winners of four straight and one victory away from an unlikely return to the playoffs. And the primary reason is Joe Barry’s defense. I was ready to run the dude out of town after his lifeless unit was mostly responsible for the Pack’s 4-8 start.
But they look like a completely different group these days, and it’s all about the takeaways. That’s 12 forced turnovers during this four-game winning streak: nine picks and three fumbles. They have nine sacks over that stretch too. Barry and his staff dialed up a great game plan for the mercurial Justin Jefferson this time around, mixing in plenty of man coverage and ensuring Jaire Alexander was across the line from him whenever possible.
After all the chirping leading into this one, calling JJ’s Game 1 eruption flukey, the NFL’s top-paid corner backed up all the talk and delivered a shutdown performance. He even showed us that he might do the Griddy better than the originator.
The defense is getting a lift from the previously-benched Savage, from youngsters TJ Slayton and Quay Walker, and from game-wrecker Kenny Clark, who dominated the second- and then third-string center across the line of scrimmage.
Aaron Jones was the other headline coming out of the game. Heading into this one, I said Jones needed at least 15 touches in a game as big as this, and he got 16. Matt LaFleur’s calculated gamble to limit his touches the last couple of weeks as he nursed a bum ankle paid off in a big way. Jones looked like his explosive self, en route to a 100 yard day. The Pack ran for 163 yards, something that needs to continue for as long as they’re playing.
By the way, the Packers scored 41 unanswered points in this game. Have the Vikings ever been on the wrong side of a 41-0 blowout? Somebody google that for me please.
The 8-8 Packers are on the plus side of the season point differential stat, the Vikings are on the minus side, despite a gaudy 12-4 record. Gotta love the NFL.
With Week 18 on deck, the Pack might just be the hottest team in the NFC right now, an amazing statement considering where this team was a month ago. They’ve delivered a dart to the heart of the confidence of their biggest rivals and they’ve delivered a message to the rest of the NFC. Now they need to take care of business when the high-flying Detroit Lions come to town for a likely late afternoon matchup at Lambeau.
We’ve got all week to dive into that matchup. On the first Sunday of 2023, the Pack announced that their ugly 2022 is behind them. They’re ascending, and though they gave up the NFC North crown, they’re beginning to look a lot more like the team that earned the conference’s top seed the last two years.