by Troy Sparks
Green Bay – Christian Ponder couldn’t play for the Minnesota Vikings as their starting quarterback because he was still injured. His backup, Joe Webb, went against the hungry Green Bay defense with their all-hands-on-deck, take no prisoners attitude because it was either win or go home for the Packers in the NFC Wild Card Game, Jan. 5, at Lambeau Field.
Last year, the Pack had a bye week and a second round game at home. They were well-rested then but fell flat to the New York Giants in the divisional game. They lost another chance at a first round bye this year when they lost at Minnesota in Week 17, but it helped intensify how important it was to get in beast mode without a break.
Green Bay, the No. 3 seed, didn’t play around with the sixth-seeded Vikings. After Minnesota struck first with a field goal, the Packers’ defense put the clamps on Webb and running back Adrian Peterson. There was no way that Peterson was going to run for 200 yards on a grass field that was in great shape. He got almost half that total, finishing with 99 yards in the game.
“We definitely had something going (in the first quarter),” Peterson said. “We were able to establish the run game early, but we needed to get seven (points) instead of three. That kind of hurt us. We got there again and we weren’t able to execute.”
While Green Bay’s pressure defense limited the Minnesota offense, the Vikings’ defense couldn’t stop Aaron Rodgers from picking the purple and gold secondary apart in the first half. The Packers didn’t completely abandon the running game, but they gained more yards in the air (197) than on the ground (42) to get down the field and set up their two first half touchdowns on short runs by running back DuJuan Harris and fullback John Kuhn. It was up to them not to blow that 17-3 halftime lead.
Before last November, not too many people knew about Harris. He worked at a car lot trying to sell cars while waiting for some team to give him a shot. Harris went from the Packers’ practice squad to the active roster to playing an important role in the offense. “It was the biggest game that I ever played in,” Harris said of his first playoff game. “I just tried not to think about it.”
The Minnesota offense kept fluttering and the Green Bay defense kept plugging along. The Vikings executed the game plan in the regular season finale against the Packers the previous week in their domed stadium. They were tranquilized in the cold, night air in Green Bay when the temperature was 29 degrees at kickoff. The Vikings raised the white flag by the fourth quarter because there would be no first round upset here.
Another TD for Kuhn on a 9-yard pass from Rodgers in the fourth quarter made it hard for Minnesota to catch up. Green Bay’s D kept the damage to a minimum until a coverage breakdown allowed receiver Michael Jenkins to catch a 50-yard pass and walk in the end zone. Linebacker A.J. Hawk was the closest Green Bay defender, about 15 yards away.
The Packers won, 24-10, and they will prepare to play at San Francisco in an NFC Divisional Game, Jan. 12. If they beat the 49ers and Atlanta lose their divisional game at home, we could see the road to the Super Bowl come through Lambeau for the NFC Championship Game because the Packers would be the highest remaining seed left.
The trip to Candlestick Park in San Francisco will be a homecoming of sorts for Rodgers, who never played a regular season or playoff game there as the Green Bay quarterback. “It would be fun to go back,” he said. “A lot of people are in the area; a lot of cheeseheads from (nearby) Chico coming down to the game. It will be a good test.”
Did it matter if the Packers played right away in the playoffs, or was it beneficial to have earned that bye to give their bodies some rest? “I felt like it had both some pros and cons,” receiver Randall Cobb said. “We had to play this week. We had to prepare and get ready for this week. That was the biggest thing. You got to keep the ball rolling and keep building that momentum off the (win).”
No one knew if Ponder was going to play, and the Packers didn’t game-plan for Webb, even though they followed the same routine as they would the week of any game. “They did a good job of keeping it under wraps,” Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I knew Joe Webb was going to play. That’s not the case. We didn’t adjust our game plan, so the players and coaches did a heck of a job.”
Rodgers was asked if he was shocked that Ponder wouldn’t be available to play and what he would do if he was in Ponder’s shoes. “I don’t know what the nature of his injury is,” he said. “I was surprised when I saw the inactives for the game and he was out. Obviously he has a significant injury. I don’t like talking about other people’s injuries and what I would do.”
Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen didn’t think Webb let the team down. “We had all the confidence in Joe,” he said. “Joe is part of the glue that keeps this thing together. No one was let down. We knew the challenges ahead, so honestly we went about business as usual.”
Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier didn’t want to take that chance with Ponder. “It just wouldn’t have been smart to put him at risk,” he said. “We made a decision to go with Joe. Some of the things we asked (Ponder) to do, he wasn’t very good at getting done. It wasn’t the right thing to do.”