As I watched the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings game on Monday Night Football, the biggest smile on my face didn't come from a Hail Mary pass to Greg Jennings, a scintilating 76-yard punt return for a touchdown by Wil Blackmon, or a run-to-daylight dagger by Ryan Grant.
The biggest smile came when Aaron Rodgers was asked by Michelle Tafoya if he enjoyed his first Lambeau Leap, and a goofy, exuberant grin took over his face, as if he was unable to contain the joy of christening his first win as the starting quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.
Maybe, like many fans, I held that smile until the final gun sounded, waiting to see if the Green Bay Packers of 2008 were going to be for real. You had the feeling throughout the whole game that if the Vikings got it together, the Packers might succumb to our lowest expectations. And, the Vikings did indeed make a game of it at the end, as just one big play would have given the Vikings the lead with precious little time remaining.
But, it is exactly the Big Play that put the Packers in the lead to begin with. Aaron Rodgers passed with brilliant efficiency, going 18/22 with a touchdown through the air. Those 18 completions, however, only netted 178 yards, and of those, 56 came on one play on a brilliant jump ball thrown to Greg Jennings in the second quarter.
If it were any other receiver, I would have said that pass was a careless risk, but Greg Jennings has shown the ability to go up and take the ball away from defenders since his rookie year. Rodgers' strength as a quarterback is his accuracy, especially when given time in the pocket. When you complete 82% of your passes and don't even throw a pass close to being intercepted, accuracy is one trait you don't dispute.
That Big Play led to another Big Play by Rodgers, who threw a crazy pass on 3rd and 1 to Korey Hall that looked like it should have been intercepted. But, it wasn't, and the Packers took a lead they never relinquished.
Not to say that it wasn't threatened. The Vikings resurged on the last play of the half, blocking a field goal attempt to go in to the locker room trailing by only a touchdown, and then holding the ball for thirteen minutes of the third quarter in a rejuvinated gameplan that looked to wear down the Packer defense, cutting the lead to four and frustrating the Packers on offense.
It was then the next Big Play struck that blew up that methodical approach the Vikings were trying so desperately to use to turn the tide. A Chris Klewe punt flew on a rope to Packer returner Wil Blackmon, who made some great moves to evade the coverage team(including a running-out-of-bounds fakeout that reminded me of James Lofton, for some reason). He then spun it back up across the field, picked up some blocks, and scored a critical touchdown.
A special teams touchdown can never be underrated, and the impact was immense in this game. The Vikings had essentially taken over the game with their ball-control approach, taking huge chunks of time off the clock and keeping Rodgers and Grant off the field. That touchdown made it an 11 point game and forced the Vikings into a failed 2-point conversion attempt that came back to haunt them later.
Had the Vikings and Packers continued as the third quarter had gone, with the Vikings controlling the time of possession and the Packer offense seemingly frustrated, this game would have likely gone the other way. Rodgers may have the glowing stats, but that punt return literally turned the tide of the game.
The Vikings went on methodically, which is pretty much the best strategy you can take with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback. I'm really not sure what the commentators were talking about when they said Jackson had a "pretty ball" when given time to throw. To me, he looked like a kid who was still trying to figure out the timing of hitting a guy in motion versus throwing it to a stationary target. While he was playing a key part in the second half comeback attempt, his passes looked like the were thrown gingerly at their targets, like he was thinking way too hard about where to put it.
But, Jackson led his team on a seven-and-a-half minute drive to answer the punt return, traversing 79 yards against a tired defense for a touchdown that cut the lead to 17-12. The Vikings chose to go for a two-point conversion, which was unsuccessful thanks to a poorly thrown ball by Jackson.
The Packers and Vikings exchanged punts, and it looked like this game might come down to another Big Play. The question was, who was going to make it?
The answer came in the form of Ryan Grant, who broke off a 57 yard run that brought the Packers to the 2 yard line. Grant looked like the running back of the latter half of 2007 on that play, showing power and speed, then cutting back and making two Viking defenders look silly as they tripped over each other trying to find their jock straps.
Prior to that play, Ryan Grant had been nearly invisible, rushing for 33 yards on 11 carries, rushing for only one first down and getting the bulk of those yards following penalties that put the Packers in impossible first down conditions. More importantly, prior to that play, the Packers had held onto the ball for only 5:31 of 22 minutes of the second half and produced only 21 yards of offense.
Aaron Rodgers put in the gimme touchdown on a quarterback sneak, aided by a penalty by the Minnesota defense, and the damage was done. That huge play essentially put the game out of reach. Jackson and the Vikings scored one more touchdown to pull to 24-19, but time ran out on Minnesota. Jackson's ragdoll arm finally threw the ball into the wrong hands to end the game, giving Atari Bigby his first pick of 2008. It certainly gives credence to the notion that the Vikings would be a vastly improved team with a solid quarterback, as the Packers made Jackson work for anything he got.
And, just like that, Lambeau Field officially became Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood, as the Packers sent Viking head coach Brad Childress home with his fifth straight loss to his cross-state rival. And, in the infernal, insanity-inducing words of Tony Kornheisser, there was probably only one happier person in the crowd than Aaron Rodgers, and that person would be general manager Ted Thompson, whose questionable decision-making over the summer is, at least for the moment, vinidicated from all that criticism he has taken.
While we bask in the glory of a 1-0 start, especially over a division foe, there were enough dark linings around that silver cloud to keep us concerned:
* An unacceptable 12 penalites for 118 yards kept the Vikings in the game longer than perhaps they should have. A spectacular touchdown pass to Donald Driver was wiped out by a silly mental error by Tony Moll and Jason Spitz, who got upfield too fast on an audible out of a run play. All in all, the offensive line accounted for eight called penalities yesterday.
* A blocked field goal that moved momentum back towards the Vikings to finish the half. The move to switch punter/holders at the end of the preseason was a bit sudden, and it was clear on a couple of kicks that new holder Derrick Frost and kicker Mason Crosby haven't gotten their rhythm down yet.
* Take away Grant's big gainer and Rodger's quarterback scrambles (35 yards, three first downs, and a touchdown) and the rushing game accounted for 45 yards on 18 carries (a 2.5 ypc average). Brandon Jackson, in particular, was regularly blown up in the backfield and gives us cause for concern if Grant aggrivates his hamstring for any length of time.
* The Packers allowed 187 rushing yards against the Vikings, with 103 to Adrian Peterson(mostly in the first half) and 65 to Tarvaris Jackson. Had the Vikings held the lead and stayed committed to a running game instead of playing from behind, those numbers might have been much worse.
* The Packers held the ball for their longest period of time (4:28) on an 11 yard drive that ended in a punt. The Packers can live and die by relying on Big Plays to pull games out for them. While there is always room for a big play, when you are nursing a lead in the third and fourth quarters, you need to have your offense put together a seven- or eight-minute drive that nets a field goal (at least) to put the game away.
But, those are concerns for another day (specifically, September 14th as the Packers play Detroit). The Packers needed to make this a statement game against a tough division opponent, and they did. There are many Aaron Rodgers and Ted Thompson Advocates that are going to feel vindicated after this game, and rightfully, they should. The Pack didn't play their best game, but came out with a victory, thanks to some Big Plays along the way.
And, hopefully, 2008 will be marked with many more goofy, exuberant grins like the one that Aaron Rodgers sported after the game. After this summer, I can't think of a better way for Packer fans to feel about their team.