GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This is how you play with your two-time NFL MVP quarterback’s left knee swathed in a brace:
A masterful plan and playcalling by coach Mike McCarthy.
A special-teams play like nothing from the last six years.
And oh yeah, that gimpy quarterback did enough Aaron Rodgers things.
This is how you fail to win despite it all:
For the second straight week, an untimely roughing-the-passer call against Clay Matthews put the Packers’ defense in a jam. His penalized late hit on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on Minnesota’s final drive of regulation wiped out rookie Jaire Alexander’s interception and allowed an eight-point touchdown drive to tie the game with 31 seconds left.
Mason Crosby, who made his first five field goals of the game, missed a game-winning 52-yarder at the final gun and forced the Packers to play an overtime.
On the way to a game-winning score in overtime, Rodgers fumbled on second-and-1 and got sacked on third-and-4 after the Vikings had already missed one field goal in the extra session.
The Green Bay Packers showed the NFL that even if Rodgers’ knee injury forces him to wear the bulky protection he debuted on Sunday and therefore restricts how well – or how often -- he moves, this team can be competitive.
But it still has to show that it can win.
That will have to wait until next Sunday at Washington after an emotionally draining 29-29 tie with the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. The overtime period included two missed field goals by the Vikings.
“Close to an L,” Rodgers said when asked what a tie felt like. “It doesn’t feel great. That last play, it’s either an L or a tie. It’s nice not to have a loss on the record right now, but disappointing. We found a lot of ways to give that one away, after last week where we were on the other side, but we had the momentum and found a way to win a game. We had a ton of chances. Disappointing the way it finished.”
McCarthy’s plan featured just enough runs -- highlighted by a 16-yarder by Ty Montgomery in the first quarter -- that totaled 101 yards on 23 attempts, plus variety of quick-hitting hitches, slants and posts routes plus Jimmy Graham’s inauguration to the offense.
A week after the free-agent tight end barely registered on the stat sheet (two catches for 8 yards), Rodgers looked his way often. Graham caught six passes for 95 yards and would have been even more impressive had a 12-yard touchdown pass not been wiped out by a Lane Taylor holding penalty that turned seven points into a third-quarter field goal.
“He’d been working with the brace and the other components and getting ready to play throughout the week and as you can see, he went out and played a heckuva football game under those circumstances,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy’s oft-criticized use of late first-half timeouts while on defense even worked in his favor when he used one with 1:48 left before a third down. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s crew got a third-down stop, and then Rodgers directed a field goal drive for a 17-7 halftime lead. McCarthy mixed in enough runs (nine called plus one scramble for 54 yards).
Special-teams coordinator Ron Zook’s unit handed Rodgers seven points when receiver Geronimo Allison extended his right hand to block a punt that rookie cornerback Josh Jackson caught at the goal line in the first quarter for the Packers’ first blocked punt since October 2012.
With Rodgers mostly in the pistol formation, he avoided contact whenever possible -- even going down early on a sack before he could get crushed -- but did show an iota of tentativeness.
He even scrambled when absolutely necessary with runs of 7 and 4 yards, the latter on which he went out of bounds with Anthony Barr chasing him (it should be noted that Barr, whose hit broke Rodgers’ collarbone last season, pulled up instead of shoving Rodgers on the boundary).
Perhaps the quintessential Rodgers moments came in the fourth quarter.
First there was the third-and-8 slant to Allison for 12 yards to set up a field goal that made it 26-21. Then, after the Vikings tied it 29-29, he rolled to his right and hit Graham for a 27-yard completion that helped set up Crosby’s shot at the game winner in regulation.
He completed 30-of-42 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown without a turnover.
“I’m pretty sore right now,” Rodgers said. “Sore in some other spots too, so that’s kind of taken away from the knee pain. Got kind of punched in the eye on an early sack. You know, took a couple other shots. But I felt good about my rehab this week. The guys in the training room do a fantastic job, got me ready to play, felt good yesterday at practice, knew the adrenaline would kick in and I’d start to feel a little better.
"I was teasing with Doc (Pat McKenzie) about running for 30 yards in the game. Came up a little short. Had I been able to pull that successfully might have been able to get to 30, but feel good about where that’s at. Not sure what my status will be for practice next week. But I feel good that I was able to make it through the game. Just disappointed with the last couple plays.”
It’s the way the Packers will have to perform as long as Rodgers is limited -- and that could be weeks or even months -- but the model could be sustainable.
But it also will have to find a way to do more.