After last year's NFC title game loss, Packers know home-field advantage guarantees nothing
GREEN BAY – It was a coronation more than another regular-season victory, the unprecedented 39th win for these Green Bay Packers in the past three seasons.
Aaron Rodgers rose a hand to the crowd as he exited Lambeau Field, ducking into the tunnel for perhaps the final time in the regular season, serenaded with “MVP” chants for one last time Sunday night. Davante Adams continued the hottest streak in a career that continues to put him in Hall of Fame company, breaking his own records along the way. Matt LaFleur went where no NFL head coach had gone before.
The Packers found themselves in an entirely familiar position after their 37-10 rout against the backup quarterback-led Minnesota Vikings on a frozen tundra. They are 13-3 for a third straight season, the first team in NFL history to do that. LaFleur’s 39th win broke former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert’s record for most ever through the first three seasons of a tenure.
They not only have the league’s best record, but clinched the NFC’s top seed. For the second straight season. Regardless of what happens next week in Detroit.
“I don’t want to say a sense of relaxation, because that’s definitely not what it is at all,” Adams said of clinching home-field advantage and a first-round bye one week early, “but it’s comforting to know that’s what we have to lean on. We’re pretty banged up, so any time we can get some of our guys some extra rest, I think that’s what we’re definitely looking forward to. So it’s awesome to be able to do it and just take a little bit of the pressure off, but definitely don’t think we’re letting the foot off the gas going into next week.”
The road to Super Bowl LVI goes through Green Bay not only because of the Packers' victory, but also the Arizona Cardinals' win at the Dallas Cowboys. A group of Packers players congregated inside the locker room before Sunday night’s kickoff, watching as Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray rushed 9 yards on second-and-4 with 2:51 left to seal the victory. They knew the significance, what it meant if they could simply beat a Vikings team led by backup quarterback Sean Mannion, who replaced Kirk Cousins after the starter was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Then they went out and treated the Vikings like a team led by backup Sean Mannion.
The Packers never let the Vikings have a chance Sunday night, never let them up for air. They led 20-3 at halftime. They were up 30-10 after the third quarter.
Rodgers completed 29 of 38 passes for 288 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 114.8 rating, positioning himself as the favorite for his fourth MVP. Adams had 11 catches for 136 yards and one touchdown, giving him 117 catches this season — two more than what was the single-season franchise record of 115 he set a year ago. Both are expected to play at least some next week in Detroit, the quarterback said and head coach later confirmed.
“I don’t think anybody in that locker room,” LaFleur said, “is going to take a deep breath like, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived.’ We know that every game basically from here on out is do or die.”
The Packers' trip to Detroit next week is the exception. There is nothing to be gained, nothing to be lost, no matter the outcome.
That doesn’t mean certain players are lacking incentive to play. Rodgers can put a final stamp on his second straight MVP. A fourth career MVP would place him behind only Peyton Manning's five for most in NFL history. Adams, already one record in hand, exited Sunday night just 22 yards shy of breaking Jordy Nelson’s single-season team record of 1,519 receiving yards set in 2014. He's 2 yards from having only the second 1,500-yard receiving season in team history.
“That’s why I want to play,” Adams smiled. “That’s not why, but I’d like to think playing a half or whatever it is, I’ll be able to take care of that.”
It’s a fair sentiment. Records are special. There’s another reason, something deeper, something that affects the entire team and where this season might be headed, for the Packers to play through at least part of their finale at the Lions.
A year ago, there was euphoria when the Packers clinched the conference’s top seed. Rodgers had said for years how important it was to him. After three straight NFC championship game losses on the road, the quarterback craved that stage at home.
The Packers are wiser now, hardened by experience. They know the No. 1 seed is not a golden ticket to the Super Bowl. Their loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field in last year’s NFC title game should be a healthy reminder of not what was gained Sunday night, but what wasn’t.
“We know what happened last year,” outside linebacker Preston Smith said. “We have that in the back of our minds, but we know going forward that we need to eliminate all the mistakes and we need to go out there and play as close to a perfect game as possible.”
If the Packers get past the NFC divisional playoff round for the third straight year, they hope this time is different. Even as COVID-19 continues to ravage society, its spread escalating in recent weeks, NFL stadiums remain full capacity. That’s a big difference compared to last season.
There was also the lack of a true winter climate when the Bucs traveled to Green Bay last January for a championship game that kicked off with a high at 29 degrees. With temperatures at 11 degrees and a wind chill of 1 before Sunday night’s kickoff, the Packers were reminded what can happen when they get a climate-controlled or warm-weather team in a real, northeastern Wisconsin freeze.
The Packers led only 3-0 after the first quarter. They poured on 17 second-quarter points to put the game away by halftime.
“Last year,” Rodgers said, “we didn’t get that good Green Bay weather. Tonight was one of those nights. We haven’t had a game like this in a while temperature wise, but it’s just different. it’s different. The whole feel of it, I think teams can break a little bit easier when it is this cold, because there’s an excuse –— the weather.”
There’s no guarantee the Packers will get that advantage if another NFC championship game is played on their home field. The lack of any guarantee was the point Sunday. Unlike a year ago, when a home title game at Lambeau Field felt something like a magic pass to the Super Bowl, the Packers know just how much work is ahead.
They aren’t easing off the gas.