by Troy Sparks
Green Bay – No one knew what head coach Mike McCarthy was thinking when he had to make the decision whether or not to rest key starters in the regular season finale against Detroit, Jan. 1, at Lambeau Field and still try to win the game. Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, Bryan Bulaga, Randall Cobb, James Starks and Greg Jennings sat out the contest.
It would have been a bad decision to play Rodgers and risk an injury. It probably ruined some fantasy picks though. Besides, the playoffs start either Jan. 14 or 15 at home.
“It was an easy call (to rest Rodgers),” McCarthy said. “It was more important for Aaron to go through the week to prepare for the Lions because there is the potential to play the Lions in the playoffs. Aaron did that.”
There was some good news for Rodgers. He had the highest QB rating this season at 122.5, a statistic the NFL first kept track of in 1973. That broke the record set by Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning. Rodgers threw for 4,643 yards with 46 TDs and six interceptions in the regular season.
So instead of backup QB Matt Flynn standing on the sideline, wearing headphones and holding a clipboard, he started in place of Rodgers. It was Flynn’s turn to see if he can engineer Green Bay to victory. It was also an informal audition for teams that are looking for a starting signal caller. Flynn wants to start, but as long as Rodgers is healthy, he will be stuck behind No. 12.
The playoff-bound Lions had more at stake to play for. They wanted the No. 5 spot and play the winner of New York and Dallas, who battled for the NFC East division title and the No. 4 seed in the NFC Playoffs. Detroit didn’t want to drop to No. 6 and play No. 3 New Orleans in the wild card round on the road, Jan. 7 or 8. A Lion loss would give Atlanta the fifth seed.
Detroit scored twice in the first 2 minutes of the opening quarter. Flynn’s sack and fumble turned into a Detroit touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Green Bay’s Pat Lee, who replaced Cobb as the kick returner, was in the Packers’ own end zone when the ball dropped short of the goal line. Lee picked up the ball near the 1-yard line, but he was still in the end zone. He thought it was a touchback. The play was ruled a safety. Detroit led, 9-0. McCarthy took Lee off the kickoff team.
Flynn did what Rodgers would have done after the other team scored first: Respond. The Packers got the points back with a field goal and a passing TD to lead 10-9 after the first quarter. Flynn’s improved play on offense in the first half with two more passing TDs gave Green Bay a 24-19 halftime advantage.
So how did Flynn do as Rodgers’ replacement, which resulted in the 45-41 win? Last season at New England, Flynn did a good job when he started for Rodgers, who had to sit out after suffering a concussion in the Packers’ loss to the Patriots.
“It was clearly one of the best performances I’ve been a part of,” McCarthy said. “The whole world got to see what we see every day. He’s a talented young man. He has full control of the offense and just the way he plays. He’s very even-keeled. He had some bumps in the road and just stayed the course.”
The scoring picked up in the second half for both teams as they traded scores. Green Bay usually turned up the tempo and put teams away. Detroit stayed step for step with the Packers. It made the outcome of the game very interesting as the lead seesawed back and forth. If the Lions thought they had the game in the bag when they went ahead, 41-38, with 2 minutes 22 seconds remaining in regulation, they had another thing coming. Flynn went back on the field and ran the 2-minute offense to perfection. Seven plays after the two-minute warning, the Packers put the nail in the coffin with a 4-yard TD pass to tight end Jermichael Finley with 1:13 left. The defense got an interception to put the game away as the green and gold survived a shootout with the Lions. The Pack set a franchise record with 15 wins.
“We had a chance to win the game and didn’t win it,” Detroit QB Matthew Stafford said. “We played well in certain areas, but it’s never fun losing, especially with so much at stake. We had the chance to lock up the five seed. We just couldn’t put enough up there to beat them.”
The win by Green Bay was the first time in team history that they finished the season undefeated in their division. “Very proud,” McCarthy said. “That was our theme during the week. We had a great video that I wish I could share with you. It’s humorous. It was well done. Just the emphasis on sweeping the division (was great).”
McCarthy gave Rodgers the freedom to call the plays in the first half on the headset to Flynn. It gave Flynn the ability to mentally carry out the play and execute it the way it was designed. Both QBs talked often all last week about situations leading up to the Detroit game.
Flynn set the single-game record in yards of total offense with 480. He was a couple of dropped passes away from going over 500. His six TDs were also a team record and a personal record at any level. “I had four touchdowns in the national championship game (for LSU),” he said. “That was the most.”
When Rodgers returns for the divisional playoffs, Flynn will take a back seat, which he doesn’t mind. “We’ve got the best quarterback in the NFL as the starter here so it’s not hard at all,” Flynn said. He doesn’t want anyone to read into any rumors that his performance will get the phones ringing to his agent from teams that will pursue him in the offseason. “That’s a mind game that you have to stay away from,” Flynn said, “leading up to the game and preparing for the game. I looked at it as just one game.”