Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are suddenly looking like a team that could shake up the playoffs

In the middle of the fourth quarter Sunday, when the Green Bay Packers were well on their way to obliterating the Minnesota Vikings 41-17, the most worrisome edition of Aaron Rodgers surfaced for the NFC playoff field.

The Packers quarterback took a snap at the Vikings’ 2-yard line with 9:32 left in the game, faked a handoff and rolled to his right, giving up another 7 yards of depth. A hole opened in the right side of the Minnesota defense, offering Rodgers an opportunity to put the play on his shoulders and run for a touchdown. All that stood between him and the goal line was rookie linebacker Brian Asamoah II, who had set himself on a collision course with the Packers quarterback, engaging every tick of his 4.5-second 40-yard dash speed.

Right then — in the very moment Asamoah was moving much faster than Rodgers and a sack seemed inevitable — the NFL’s reigning two-time MVP pump-faked once and skittered to his right. The move threw Asamoah stuttering and off kilter, leaving him diving at Rodgers’ feet and finding nothing but Lambeau Field grass. Rodgers scampered away and held the ball out in front of himself as he crossed the goal line. The way a deft quarterback does when he’s toying with a defense. He then turned to the end zone crowd and held his arms out to his side and nodded, as if to say, “Yes, you know me. And you definitely know this.”

They’re certainly not the only ones. The Vikings know this version of Rodgers. As do the Detroit Lions and every other potential NFC playoff contender. He’d been absent for a large part of the season for any number of reasons — hampered by a broken thumb or bruised ribs, or simply suffering from battered chemistry as his wide receivers searched for their roles in the lingering absence of Davante Adams. Things that all seem to have changed in the span of a few weeks.

Yes, what was lost by Rodgers appears to have been found. And Sunday’s fourth-quarter run was the most dramatic example of the discovery — showcasing him at his most confident, despite a box score of statistics that will tell you it was the running game and defense that dominated Minnesota. Indeed, this is the fully realized Rodgers who exited the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in late November and immediately started talking about running the table with a 5-0 record and somehow catching some breaks into a playoff game. The same guy who bragged that when the Packers were down 19-10 on the road against the Bears the following week, he felt good about the team being able to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback that actually materialized.

All along, Rodgers said he believed this was possible — a four-game winning streak that would pit Green Bay against Detroit in Week 18 with a wild-card berth on the line. Doubters rolled their eyes and he repeated his belief that it was there for the taking with just a little help. Now the Packers have gotten it, and the whole team is starting to look far more like the franchise we thought it could be. Evidenced by a running game that tore the Vikings apart, a defense that shut down Justin Jefferson like no other team has done this season, and a quarterback who has gone from looking like every game was torture to believing this is a team hitting its stride. Not to mention a dynamic rookie wideout in Christian Watson, whose emergence helped to get Rodgers on track during the last five weeks.

All of this is bad for an NFC playoff field filled with teams either limping with injury or flawed with postseason inexperience. Green Bay suddenly has neither. And it has a quarterback who is starting to look like the back-to-back MVP that we all expected when the season started.

Packers fans have seen this version of Aaron Rodgers before. So have the Vikings, Lions and just about every other NFC playoff contender. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)
Packers fans have seen this version of Aaron Rodgers before. So have the Vikings, Lions and just about every other NFC playoff contender. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“I still believe in myself and felt like it just takes one [win] sometimes,” Rodgers said Sunday. “It’s strange, but when we were sitting at 3-6 and we looked at the next three, at the time Tennessee was playing really well. Obviously the [Dallas] Cowboys were playing well and [Philadelphia] was No. 1 in the league. I just felt like if we get one of those [wins], we can win the last five and 9-8 is going to get [into the playoffs]. … I had faith, much like being 4-6 in [2016, when Green Bay finished 10-6]. Sometimes you gotta fool yourself a little bit into believing a little bit more. But I definitely had faith I was going to go down scrappin’ for sure.”

The rest of the NFL helped, of course, right down to the Cleveland Browns beating the Washington Commanders on Sunday and knocking them out of the final wild-card slot. That opened the door to the Packers facing the Lions at Lambeau Field next week — where the Packers are 28-3 in the past 31 games against Detroit. A fact that Rodgers knows well, subtly (and not complimentarily) referring to the Lions as a “dome team” (which they are) that he was confident about facing in the frigid January weather in Green Bay.

Rodgers reiterated some of that in very low-key fashion on Sunday, once again stating his confidence in Green Bay’s track record against Detroit at Lambeau Field. His attitude has not gone unnoticed, with Lions players grousing on Sunday about some of Rodgers’ comments earlier this season, following a 15-9 home win by the Lions in November. After that defeat, which feature three Rodgers interceptions, he said bluntly, “We can’t lose a game like that against that team, no. So that’s going to hurt for a while.”

For a Lions team that will be gnawing on whatever added motivation it can find going into the make-or-break Week 18 meeting, Rodgers’ comments were significant. To everyone else, they were obvious. The Packers were not a team that anyone saw losing to Detroit even once this season. They were also not a franchise that most saw fighting itself for much of the 2022 campaign. But that’s how it worked out, with Green Bay only now starting to resemble a serious threat to the NFC.

Some might balk at that suggestion, but consider what the NFC elites look like heading into the most important games of the season. The Cowboys are talented and capable of being a Super Bowl contender, but also wildly inconsistent on defense at times. The Eagles crushed the Packers, but now are left to wonder how the shoulder of starting quarterback Jalen Hurts will hold up when he returns. The Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have some significant flaws either defensively or offensively. And even the vaunted San Francisco 49ers — who appear to be the favorites now in the NFC — have a solidly performing rookie quarterback, Brock Purdy, who has never faced the intensity of an NFL playoff slate.

It would be shortsighted to suggest that this Green Bay team, the one with momentum and Rodgers, has no legitimate shot against the NFC’s field of contenders. Even if it means having going on the road, it’s worth noting that Rodgers’ only Super Bowl win came after the 2010 season, when a 10-6 team caught fire and won it all while traveling to someone else’s stadium each round.

While there’s little correlation between that team and Green Bay’s 2022 roster, there is overlap where it matters. At quarterback, with Rodgers, who sounds more and more like he’s convinced that something special is happening in Green Bay after an unexpectedly flat start.

As Rodgers put it Sunday, “I do believe in the power of manifestation. And I do believe in momentum. And I believe strongly in the force of the mind. When you start to believe something strongly, some miraculous things can happen.”

If the Packers can beat Detroit next Sunday, he’ll have the playoff road to prove it.