GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — The Green Bay Packers are back in familiar territory, so close to another NFC North title.
It’s hard to believe this same team was once 4-6.
But the Packers won their fifth straight game, riding a big-play passing attack and an opportunistic defense in a 38-25 victory on Saturday over the Minnesota Vikings. Rodgers threw for 347 yards and four scores, and the Packers cashed in on two Vikings turnovers with touchdown drives.
Next up is a winner-take-all showdown next week with Detroit for the division title.
”We’re planning on going to Detroit to win the division,” coach Mike McCarthy said. ”Merry Christmas.”
The win also extinguished the Vikings’ faint postseason hopes. Their hopes to repeat as division champs were already gone.
A 5-0 start to the year was wasted.
”I think when you look at it there were just a lot of mistakes, self-inflicted wounds and they came back to bite us and we weren’t able to overcome those at times,” quarterback Sam Bradford said.
The Packers have thrived after their own bouts of adversity, notably a midseason, four-game losing streak.
Nelson had 154 yards and two touchdowns from 21 yards and 2 yards in the first half. The receiver found seams in Minnesota’s defense, despite the return of safety Harrison Smith from an ankle injury.
Green Bay (9-6) built a 28-13 lead at halftime, with Rodgers accounting for all four scores. He finished 28 of 38, and shrugged off his right calf injury after scrambling for a 6-yard touchdown late in the second quarter and making a rare Lambeau Leap .
”Once I got moving, I felt like myself,” said Rodgers, adding that the sore calf is getting better.
Playing again without running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings (7-8) had success through the air. Sam Bradford threw for 382 yards and three touchdowns, including a 71-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen in the second quarter.
Thielen had a career-high 202 yards and two scores.
But the Vikings made too many other mistakes to catch up to the Packers.
”One time a guy fell down, one time on the deep route to Nelson, (cornerback Xavier Rhodes) pulled off it too soon,” coach Mike Zimmer said about the porous pass coverage. ”Trying to think of all them but there was a lot.”
Maybe the Vikings were sluggish after the team plane got stuck in the grass on the way to the gate at a Wisconsin airport on Friday night after making a safe landing, forcing a delay of more than five hours.
Zimmer didn’t think it an impact.
”I think we played hard. I just don’t think we played good. I don’t think the plane ride had anything to do with it or anything else. There (are) no excuses,” he said.
Thielen went big play-for-big play with Nelson, finishing with 12 catches. The Packers secondary had shaky moments again a week after a porous fourth quarter in a win over the Chicago Bears.
Rodgers and Nelson set a Packers record on their 21-yard score in the first quarter. It was the 58th touchdown for the duo, breaking the tie with the Brett Favre-Antonio Freeman combination. Rodgers threw about a 10-yard pass up the seam to Nelson, who found a soft spot in the zone and then made safety Andrew Sendejo miss on a tackle before lunging forward to get the ball into the end zone.
”It’s special,” McCarthy said about the connection between Rodgers and Nelson. ”You can see the trust.”
Matthews looked like his big-play self for the first time in weeks.
He has been limited since hurting his left shoulder in late November during a win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The Packers’ most dynamic pass rusher said during practice this week that he was feeling better and hoped to get more snaps.
The long-haired Matthews made a difference against the Vikings, including the strip-sack of Bradford late in the second quarter that led to Rodgers’ touchdown run, along with two key pass deflections and another pressure by early in the third quarter.
Vikings: Smith played for the first time in two weeks. WR Stefon Diggs (hip) was active after being listed as questionable coming into the game, and finished with 29 yards and a touchdown on four catches.
Packers: Rodgers suffered a stinger after getting sacked in the third quarter, but returned on the next series. … CB LaDarius Gunter left the game with an elbow injury in the second quarter. RT Bryan Bulaga suffered a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter.
Vikings: Wrap up regular season by hosting the Bears on New Year’s Day.
Packers: At Detroit on Jan. 1 in game to decide the NFC North title.
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