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Dougherty: Dead-in-the-water Packers now on the brink of stunning run to the playoffs

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GREEN BAY − Not much more than a month ago, even Aaron Rodgers, while professing belief he and his Green Bay Packers would keep fighting, wasn’t confident enough to make any bold predictions about running the table, as he famously did in 2016.

Yet, after their 41-17 blowout of the NFC North Division-leading Minnesota Vikings, the Packers, seemingly down and out in late November, are now a de facto playoff team.

If they beat the Detroit Lions next week, the Packers will stay alive and play in the wild-card round. If they lose, they go home.

“I know not many people in that locker room and definitely not many of you (reporters) believed we’d be sitting here at 8-8 with control of our own destiny going into Week 18,” Rodgers said. “That’s pretty special.”

So how did the Packers get here? How did they go from a team that had lost seven of eight games and sitting on a 4-8 record to one that’s won four straight and is playing its best football while also gaining control of their playoff prospects in the regular-season finale?

It’s only a small oversimplification to say it comes down to two players: Keisean Nixon and Christian Watson. Neither was a factor in the first half the season, but together they have turned around the Packers starting in late November. Nixon has had a stunning impact since taking over primary kick and punt return duties six weeks ago, and Watson has changed the Packers’ offense with game-breaking speed at receiver since he’s been healthy enough to play regularly at about the same time.

It’s a great lesson for those of us who counted out the Packers at 4-8, and with Rodgers having just sustained a ribs injury, and the defense’s best player (outside linebacker Rashan Gary) recently lost for the season because of a torn ACL. Margins are thin in the NFL, and talented players can emerge as difference makers at almost any time.

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Nixon started working in the return game about halfway through the season and became the Packers’ primary kick and punt returner in Game 10 against Dallas. That’s the same game Watson was healthy enough to become a full-time player for the first time since the opener. And beginning with that win over Dallas, the Packers are 5-2.

“That’s what you don’t account for,” Rodgers said of his two season-changing teammates, “and you’re happy when it happens.”

Nixon’s impact was more obvious than Watson’s on Sunday. It’s rare that games turn early in the first quarter, but this one did. The Packers looked like they’d be in an early hole when the Vikings blocked a punt and took over at the Packers’ 1. But coordinator Joe Barry’s defense made the goal-line stand, held the Vikings to three points, and then Nixon took back the kickoff for a 105-yard touchdown that put the Packers ahead 7-3.

What looked like an early disaster became a huge game changer in the Packers’ favor. It was Nixon’s first return for a touchdown, but something that had brewing for weeks as he kept breaking off momentum-changing returns that landed him atop the NFL’s kick-returning leaders in yards (825) and yards per return (27.5) coming into this game.

“(Nixon) runs it back for a touchdown, it’s 7-3,” Rodgers said, “and then we have a pick-six, next thing you know it’s 14-3 and we’ve done absolutely nothing on offense, and we’re up by two scores. A little different feeling, for sure. Haven’t really had that over the years.”

Watson didn’t do much statistically against the Vikings – he caught only one pass for 11 yards. But Rodgers threw three deep balls to him, and while none connected, Watson had a step on his man on all three. The Vikings surely knew the threat Watson presented – he had eight touchdowns in the previous six games – and that the next deep shot was always potentially a play away.

That makes teammates better, because defenses are more inclined to keep safeties deep and over the top of him. Against the Vikings, running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon combined for 152 yards rushing on 26 carries before getting almost the entire fourth quarter off with the outcome well in hand.

“Christian may not have had a ton of catches,” coach Matt LaFleur said, “but I still think his presence out there makes a big impact on the game.”

The Packers now face a Lions team that’s 8-8 and playing hard for its intense, heart-on-his-sleeve coach, Dan Campbell, and a playoff berth on the line. They’ll go into the game hot and riding as high a tide of good feelings as anyone in the league.

Whether the Packers really a threat to make a deep playoff run like in ’16, well, the Gary injury still looms large. No team is ever the same after losing a top-end pass rusher.

But the NFC doesn’t have a real powerhouse – the Packers took the top-seeded Eagles to the wire in November, and while San Francisco has the most talent in the conference top to bottom, it is playing a seventh-round draft pick rookie (Brock Purdy) at quarterback. So you never know.

Regardless, the Packers’ past four games have gone a long a way toward changing their narrative for this season and prospects for next year. Not much more than a month ago, the questions were mainly about when they should take a look at Jordan Love, and whether they should trade Rodgers (or whether he might request a trade) in the offseason.

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Now, the Packers are a win away from the playoffs, and a month ago might as well be six.

“It’s been an interesting year,” Rodgers said about the uncertainty that was building during the team’s struggles. “It hasn’t been my best football at times. … (But) whatever was supposed to happen, I was surrendered to that reality. With also the resolute mindset that we could still get back in this thing. And I think that’s what I’m most proud of, for myself and our team, is that there were a lot of different things that could happen, and we stuck together. And we put ourselves in position to do something special.”

Of course, much still depends on next week. The Packers have to beat the Lions, or this was all for naught.

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