Already hampered by a nagging calf injury headed into the regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions, Rodgers’ aggravation of the injury, temporary exit from the game and subsequent return to the field to lead the Packers to a 30-20 victory provided enough drama that, in time, could be chronicled among the most told stories of his career.
Of course, helping the cause would be taking the Packers on a Super Bowl run, which is what they have a better chance of doing after winning an NFC North Division Championship game that earned them a first-round bye in the playoffs and the No. 2 seed. A loss would have put them on the road next weekend as the No. 6 seed, which is where the Lions are slotted.
The disparity in seeding and not having a week off certainly played on Rodgers’ mind during halftime on Sunday, when team physicians evaluated him and he was lobbying for a return to the game. He left the game late in the second quarter after coming up gimpy, without being hit, just before tossing a 4-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb.
“As bad as it felt, I thought if I can go out there and be able to do some things and we win, I get another week to rehab. That was definitely in my mind,” said Rodgers. “Obviously, that doesn’t enter the minds of the medical staff. They’re thinking about what’s in the best interests of the player, but Doc (Pat McKenzie) and I have a great trust between each other and we did a little fist pound, and after I told him I felt good and Mike (McCarthy) said OK, he just trusted that I was not going to do anything stupid.”
Rodgers injured his left calf early in the game last Sunday at Tampa. In the 20-3 victory, the Packers altered their offensive game plan for his lack of mobility.
Early against the Lions, they appeared to do the same.
Though Rodgers was listed as probable on the injury report, a sign he might have been hurting more than many believed was that the Packers activated all three of their quarterbacks on Sunday for the first time all season. Then, in the first quarter, the Packers used Rodgers often out the pistol formation to simplify his movement for both hand-offs and pass attempts. The run-to-pass ratio for the Packers at halftime was 17-9, even against the league’s stingiest run defense.
In the second quarter, Rodgers jogged more than he ran on a 13-yard scamper, looking more the part of a limited player. He said he “felt pretty good about his mobility” after the run, but three plays later, with a Lions’ penalty mixed in, he was being helped off the field at the 2:24 mark and then carted off to the locker room.
“I was worried about the severity of the injury and my ability to walk off the field at that point,” said Rodgers. “But once I got back in the locker room I was actually watching the game on TV with some heat on my calf thinking if I could finagle myself to go back in. Doc came in at halftime, we talked. It took a little longer to get taped back up. Went in the tunnel until the possession was over, the first possession of the second half. I came over, did some light drops on the sidelines and felt like I could go back into the game.”
Backup Matt Flynn took the last snap of the first half and the first three snaps of the third quarter before Rodgers made his appearance out of the tunnel during a Tim Masthay’s punt. The sold-out crowd chanted “MVP, MVP,” as Rodgers made his way to the sideline just as they did in the first half when he stayed down on the turf. Rodgers took a few warm-up tosses on the sideline before returning the next offensive series.
Unlike his broken collarbone a season ago, however, this decision to return was not as clear cut.
“It was kind of on me to see how I felt,” said Rodgers, who also admitted there was risk of worsening the injury by playing. “But I trust Dr. McKenzie with my health and we had a long conversation at halftime, and I was kind of battling to get back out there. It was kind of one battle at a time, a battle to be able to get taped back up and see if you can do anything on the sidelines. Once I got back out there I felt pretty good on the sidelines. I knew it was going to be kind of like last week, not being able to move a whole lot. But just felt like if I could get back in there it might give us a little jolt and wanted to be out there with the guys competing.”
The jolt was noticeable – from the energy in the crowd to the numbers on the scoreboard. When Rodgers went out, the Packers were up 14-0. When he returned to the field on the Packers’ second offensive series of the third quarter (at the 7:34 mark), it was 14-14.
“I wasn’t really expecting him to come back in the game once we saw him in the locker room (at halftime) but to see him come back out there in the second half, get on the sideline and do some movement and go back in the game, I mean, he’s the best player on the team, the best quarterback in the league so obviously that gives you a boost, kind of boosts your spirits up a little bit,” said guard T.J. Lang. “He’s a gritty son of a bitch, he’s a guy who, like last week, it’s going to take a lot to keep him out of the game. To see him fight through the injury is quite impressive.”
Other teammates were surprised to see Rodgers come back to the game, too. It hardly mattered that for the second straight week he was basically operating on one leg. With the Packers continuing to batter the Lions on the ground, Rodgers completed 11 of 13 passes after his return, including a 13-yard touchdown pass to Cobb on his first series back to regain the lead.
Later, in the fourth quarter, he called his own number on a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown to give the Packers a two-touchdown lead. It seemed like a curious decision considering Rodgers’ health and that they rarely used the sneak in short-yardage situations.
“I didn’t feel like the quarterback sneak fell into the stupid category. (McCarthy) might have differed with his opinion there,” continued Rodgers from his earlier comments, “but I’m just glad I could get back out there and compete with my guys.”
The calf concerns, however, did not end there. With the Packers trying to salt away the game, Ndamukong Suh backed up into Rodgers after a 15-yard completion to Nelson. With the quarterback lying on the ground, Suh stepped on Rodgers’ lower left leg. Replays left minds to interpreting whether the act was intentional, but Rodgers’ actions proved otherwise, as he pushed Suh off his leg while still on the ground.
“He’ll probably say it was an accident, he was getting blocked into me,” said Rodgers. “That’s what (referee) Walt Anderson said. But we’ll see.”
At the next timeout, Lang and Suh could be seen in a heated exchanged of words, though Lang said in the locker room afterward that he did not immediately see what happened to Rodgers. But still, Lang wanted to come to his quarterback’s defense.
“Aaron looked upset and said that (Suh) stepped on his calf or something,” said Lang. “I didn’t really see it. But later in the game there I was blocking him and he’s a guy who likes to play through the whistle sometimes and you’ve just got to try to match his effort, and he got a little upset at me. I won’t say what he was saying to me, it’s not safe-for-work language. But I didn’t see the play. I just went by what Aaron said.”
With the questionable behavior of Suh this time around, Lang also added, “There’s some history there.”
Suh was on the sideline for the last series, the one before he stepped on Rodgers’ leg. He also left the field quickly when the clock expired and did not speak to anyone as one of the first Lions to enter the visiting tunnel.
After not completing a pass until a third-and-10 play that began at the 13:04 mark of the second quarter, Rodgers overcame not only his injury but a 0-for-3 start to finish 17-of-22 for 226 yards with three combined touchdowns. He also finished the home regular season schedule without an interception and ended the Lions’ stretch of 12 straight games with a pick.
All told, Rodgers has 418 consecutive passes and 36 touchdowns at home without throwing an interception. Both are NFL records.
With continued treatment Rodgers thinks his left calf muscle – which he said he injured in a different spot on Sunday – should be much better when the Packers host an NFC Divisional on Sunday, Jan. 11. For now, Packers fans and teammates can revel in his heroics.
For linebacker A.J. Hawk, it conjured up images of Willis Reed in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. For third-string quarterback Scott Tolzien, it compared to the Michael Jordan flu game in the 1997 NBA Finals. For Rodgers, it ranks up there, too.
“When I step back and think about this season and this game years from now, I’ll probably take a lot of pride in getting back out there and letting my teammates know I’ll put my body on the line for them,” said Rodgers. “But we’re in the moment. It’s about winning the division and getting a home playoff game. You’re just out there competing. This is what we love to do. I’m passionate about this game. I love the competition, and I love being out there with my guys and having them count on me to be myself. This is a good night and good things to come.”