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Time off allows Rodgers chance to heal

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GREEN BAY — The big grin that accompanied the answer sure looked to be telling.

After announcing the players would be off until Friday during the team’s bye week for the start of the playoffs, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was asked Monday whether the schedule was tied to quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ famous calf injury.

“We all understand Aaron is very important to our football team, but scheduling is done in what’s for the best interest of our team,” said McCarthy, unable to keep the smile off his face.

Without having to say a word, there’s no question plenty of rest is integral to Green Bay’s game plan this game-free week.

Thanks to a hard-fought, drama-packed 30-20 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday that settled the NFC North title, the Packers are breathing easier as they move on to the postseason for the sixth straight year.

Winning the division for the fourth consecutive season earned Green Bay (12-4) the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. The Packers will be idle until they host a divisional-round game Jan. 11 at 12:05 p.m. Central time.

“It’ll be good to get our guys rested up, get healthy and get ready to make a run,” linebacker Julius Peppers said.

The extra time off — McCarthy excused the players after they came in for a few hours Monday until they’ll have the first of two straight days of practice Friday — is well-received by Rodgers.

He aggravated a strained left calf late in the first half and, after being carted back to the locker room, was counted out by a number of teammates from returning to the showdown for NFC North supremacy.

“Yeah, I, for sure, thought he was done for the night,” said receiver Randall Cobb, who caught the four-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers just as the scrambling quarterback fell to the frozen turf in a heap.

“I came in during halftime, I went and checked on him and saw him lying on the (training) table,” Cobb added. “Definitely a tough time, but we understood that the rest of us had to step up, and then for him to come back out was huge for us.”

Rodgers emerged from the tunnel in the southeast corner of Lambeau Field to loud cheers just as Green Bay was punting the football back to the Lions after a three-and-out led by backup Matt Flynn to start the second half.

When Rodgers re-entered the game in the Packers’ next series midway through the third quarter, Detroit had just tied the score at 14. A gimpy Rodgers promptly directed a seven-play, 60-yard drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Cobb, and Green Bay was back in the lead for good at 21-14.

For Rodgers, the reward of leading the Packers to the crucial victory and keeping them from falling to the No. 6 seed in the NFC and thus having to play a first-round game this weekend outweighed the risk of doing further damage to the lower leg.

“I wanted to be back out there competing with my guys,” Rodgers said. “I wasn’t going to put myself in major harm’s way. But, at the same time, I feel like if I could be out there I could give our team a little jolt.

“(And) as bad as (the calf) 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 it. That was definitely in my mind.”

While a self-deprecating Rodgers said he didn’t think he did “anything heroic” a week after he suffered the calf injury early in Green Bay’s win at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, wowed teammates said he locked up a second NFL MVP award.

Rodgers finished the game 17-for-22 for 226 yards and the two touchdowns to Cobb without an interception for a superb passer rating of 139.6.

“He’s just a tough son of a bitch,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “Like he said last week, it’s going to take a lot to keep him out of a game like this. To see him obviously limping off the field and then to come back in the second half and just play lights out was pretty damn impressive. So, anytime you get your leader back, your captain back, obviously it’s a big boost for the team. It was impressive to see him come back out there.”

With the long layoff until the Packers play again, Rodgers exuded optimism amid the pain in his leg that he’ll be ready for their postseason debut. Green Bay will play the third-seeded Dallas Cowboys, No. 4 Carolina Panthers or No. 5 Arizona Cardinals, depending on what happens in the two wild-card games this weekend.

“I think that’ll be enough time,” Rodgers said. “Give us two weeks, it should be good to go.”

After talking to an upbeat Rodgers on Monday, McCarthy has no doubt, either, leaving the door open that Rodgers could be on the practice field when the team reconvenes Friday morning.

“He feels good — he always feels good,” McCarthy said. “He had some testing done (Monday), and we feel like we have a good plan for his rehab this week, and we’ll see how he’s doing on Friday.”

REPORT CARD VS. LIONS

PASSING OFFENSE: B — Aaron Rodgers’ flair for the dramatic went to another level Sunday. After aggravating an injury to his left calf late in the first half that resulted in him being taken to the locker room in a cart, Rodgers returned to the field early in the second half and re-entered the game to lead the Packers to the pivotal win that clinched another NFC North title as well as a bye in the first round of the playoffs. A game Rodgers had one of his more efficient games this season despite being limited to mostly throwing from the pocket. He went 17-for-22 for 226 yards and two touchdowns without an interception for a lofty passer rating of 139.6. Green Bay’s pass catchers rallied around its wounded warrior by hanging onto the football with regularity. Jordy Nelson (six receptions, 86 yards), Randall Cobb (four catches, 80 yards, two touchdowns) and rookie tight end Richard Rodgers (career-high five receptions, 40 yards) all were targeted at least five times. A gimpy Aaron Rodgers avoided being sacked by Detroit’s tenacious front, but he should have had a dump-off pass in the shadow of the end zone backed up in Green Bay territory picked off by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh early in the second quarter for what could have been an easy pick-six. The Lions’ lone sack came against Matt Flynn, who relieved Rodgers for all of four plays in two possessions spanning the end of the first half and the start of the second half.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus — Green Bay certainly didn’t recoil from going against the league’s stingiest run defense. A 22-yard burst up the vacated middle by Eddie Lacy was the first of six straight run plays by the Packers in their first series of the game. James Starks ripped off a 21-yard gain three plays later, and Green Bay was well on its way to gashing the Lions like no other opponent has this season. Detroit surrendered a season-high 152 rushing yards as the Packers set a season best with 38 run plays. Lacy shouldered most of the work, turning a season-high 26 carries into 100 yards — the first player to reach the century mark against the Lions this season. However, Lacy was stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the Detroit 1-yard line in Green Bay’s promising run-heavy opening possession, three plays after fullback John Kuhn ran for no gain from the same spot. Lacy also lost a fumble as he tried to grind out more yards on the second level in Lions territory in the second quarter. Shortly before aggravating his calf injury on a step-up outside the pocket and flip of the football to Cobb for their first touchdown connection, Rodgers scrambled for 13 yards. Then, after his triumphant return to action, Rodgers called his own number at the line of scrimmage for a one-yard touchdown sneak behind left guard Josh Sitton in the final quarter to give Green Bay a 14-point cushion at 28-14.

PASS DEFENSE: B — Matthew Stafford threw for three touchdowns, including two to Calvin Johnson. Yet, for most of the game, the Packers had the upper hand against the talented, but erratic quarterback. A good dose of pressure kept Stafford stationary in the pocket and resulted in a bevy of hurried and occasionally bad throws. Stafford completed less than 50 percent of his passes (20-for-41) and threw for only 217 yards. Though he avoided a turnover, his efficiency rating was a pedestrian 89.2. Linebacker Clay Matthews had a resounding coverage sack of Stafford outside the pocket to ensure a three-and-out in Detroit’s game-opening series. Stafford, who was sacked twice, also threw the football away out of the end zone on defensive end Datone Jones’ pressure for a safety late in the game. The Lions’ dynamic pass-catching duo of Johnson (four receptions, 39 yards) and Golden Tate (three catches, 45 yards) were primarily held in check despite being targeted a combined 16 times. Safety Morgan Burnett, in help coverage downfield, allowed a 20-yard touchdown strike from Stafford to Johnson over the middle in the final seconds of the first half right after linebacker Brad Jones was penalized for roughing the passer with a hit to Stafford’s helmet on what would have been an incomplete pass on third-and-long.

RUSH DEFENSE: B — Take away an unexpected 18-yard scramble from an alert Stafford up a vacated middle in the fourth quarter, the Lions wouldn’t have attained 100 rushing yards. Instead, they finished with 111, averaging 4.8 yards per touch. The halfback tandem of Joique Bell and Reggie Bush each had an explosive run of 18 and 14 yards, respectively. Otherwise, they weren’t much of factor. In fact, Bell, who led Detroit with 60 yards in 13 carries, crushed what had the makings of a big turning point for the Lions in the opening minutes of the last quarter. Detroit took over in a prime spot at its 42 after blocking a field goal to keep its deficit at seven points, but Bell fumbled the handoff from Stafford on the next play. The recovery made by Burnett in a scrum led to the Packers’ decisive final touchdown.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C — The aforementioned block of a 52-yard field goal by Mason Crosby augmented Green Bay’s foibles in the kicking game the last several weeks. The Packers had seven kicks blocked during the regular season, including three field goals. That late-game breakdown as well as its inability to recover an onside kick in the final minutes didn’t cost Green Bay in a game that featured a long-overdue spark from its special-teams units. Micah Hyde eluded a few tackles on a dash up the middle in a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown that started the scoring in the first quarter. Former Packer Jeremy Ross had a couple big returns – 41 yards on a kickoff and 14 yards on a punt. The latter didn’t help Green Bay punter Tim Masthay, who had ugly numbers of 39.0 yards gross and 27.7 yards net in three kicks.

COACHING: B — Head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy weathered the temporary loss of Aaron Rodgers. Although McCarthy didn’t hesitate to rely on his superstar quarterback to make some critical throws on just one good leg in the second half after Detroit tied the score at 14, the extra reliance on a stunningly effective run game throughout the game proved vital. Where McCarthy erred in his play calling has become a sore spot for the Packers in a few games down the stretch. For all the pop Lacy provided earlier in the drive, Green Bay’s first possession of the game flamed out at the Lions’ 1 because McCarthy kept his rugged back on the sideline until the failed fourth-down run. After Detroit’s first-down stop of Kuhn, Rodgers was incomplete on back-to-back passes in the end zone. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ group had its nice run of two straight games without allowing a touchdown end late in the first half Sunday, but its bend-but-don’t-break calling card prevailed. The enduring self-combustion by Shawn Slocum’s special-teams units is enough reason to be concerned about Green Bay’s shelf life in the upcoming playoffs.


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