For a moment on Sunday, the hush at Lambeau Field was as ominous as it had been 14 months earlier. For the second time in as many seasons, fans watched in horror as Aaron Rodgers, the Packers' superstar quarterback, lay on the turf in obvious pain, unable to get himself upright again.
Those same fans surely pondered if Rodgers would meet a similar fate. In 2013, he fractured his collarbone and was lost for half a season. While his shoulder mended, the Packers went 2-5-1, saved only by the poor late-season play of their divisional opponents and Rodgers' Week 17 comeback and the resulting heroics.
But Rodgers had the benefit of nearly two months for recovery. This time, a serious injury could wipe out everything. The team announced that Rodgers suffered a calf injury, the same injury that hindered him in Week 16 and during the subsequent week of practice. After the medical staff carted Rodgers off to the locker room, the fans at Lambeau fell into a daze of apprehension and numbness.
Until, of course, No. 12 emerged from the tunnel shortly after halftime. Rodgers spent several minutes warming up his arm and pacing the sidelines. When the Packers regained possession of the football, he trotted out with the offense to thunderous applause.
Still, there was a feeling of apprehension in the air. Rodgers played hobbled earlier in the season against New Orleans and struggled to deliver the ball accurately. There was every reason to wonder if Rodgers would endure the same issues battling through a twice-injured calf.
Yet the narrative would be far different this time around. Rather than wilt, Rodgers thrived in the second half, producing yet another memorable season finale for the future Hall of Famer. In doing so, Rodgers helped his team wrap up the NFC North and a playoff bye while locking up a significant personal accolade.
Rodgers seals the 2014 MVP award
By the end of Week 17's early slate of games, there was a decided push among media members that J.J. Watt might indeed overtake Aaron Rodgers for the MVP award. His case is a strong one. Watt notched three sacks on Sunday to bring his total to 20.5. In doing so, he became the first player in NFL history with multiple 20-sack seasons. He also became the first player in the modern era to score points via an interception return, a fumble return, a touchdown catch and a safety in the same season. On this there can be no debate: Watt is the most unique player in the NFL today.
But that's not the same as the league's best player. Rodgers, playing the majority of the game on one leg, produced one of his best games of the season to help his team seal a division title and a playoff bye. His 77.3 completion percentage Sunday represented the sixth time he finished above 70 this season. His two touchdown passes pushed his season total to 38. Rodgers' score-to-turnover differential now stands at +33, best in the league by a sizeable margin.
If the MVP award were interpreted literally, the best quarterback would win the award every year. As Adrian Peterson's 2012 campaign attests, that's not how it necessarily works. However, Rodgers' performance this season exceeds those of any other player. If his absurd statistical numbers don't wow you, it is only because he produces them year after year. He's the most difficult player in the league for opposing teams to account for, and that is why he will win his second MVP award next month.
McCarthy's play calling gaffs derail opening drive
The game plan the Packers coaching staff created for the Lions was masterful. They designed effective counters for Detroit's defensive strengths while finding ways to make Matthew Stafford uncomfortable throughout the game. For this they should be commended. The Lions haven't won in Lambeau since 1991, but they are formidable opponents. In the hands of lesser coaches this game could have gone entirely differently.
But that does not excuse Mike McCarthy's awful sequence of play calls inside the Detroit 10-yard line at the end of the Packers' first drive. After a pass interference penalty set his team up with a first down at the 1-yard line, McCarthy inexplicably called a John Kuhn dive followed by two consecutive pass plays rather than leaning on his star tailback who had rushed for 38 yards on four carries at that point. Even more confounding, Lacy wasn't even on the field during those plays. By removing Lacy, the Packers lost the threat of a bulldozing run up the gut, thus diminishing their ability to surprise the Lions with a pass. Lacy did reappear for an attempted fourth down conversion, but given the situation the Lions knew where the ball was going and successfully forced a turnover on downs.
Perhaps there were extenuating circumstances that explain those play call decisions. Perhaps Lacy was hurt in a non-apparent way and needed the plays off. Perhaps Rodgers changed the calls at the line to ineffective pass plays. There's no way to know for certain. However, one of the few negatives critics of McCarthy's play calling can point to is his work near the goal line. Too often, he gets too cute rather than manufacturing situations where his best players can do what they do best. Green Bay survived it on Sunday, but it could sink them in the postseason.
Packers' special teams remain an adventure every week
The numbers don't lie. For the 2014 season, the Packers endured seven blocked field goal attempts, the most in the NFL.
At the same time, Micah Hyde returned his second punt for a touchdown this season on Sunday, giving him three in two years and tying him with Desmond Howard and Will Blackmon for most in team history.
But it should also be noted that the Packers allowed Detroit to recover a post-safety kick, effectively inventing the "onside punt."
While Green Bay's offense and defense are playing at a high level, the performance of its special teams has been all over the place. Often, this is the result of injuries depleting the available players for the kickoff, punt, and field goal units to work with. However, the Packers are uncommonly healthy for this time of year. Instead, at least some fault for team's special teams inconsistencies has to fall on coordinator Shawn Slocum.
There's little the team can do at this point of the season. The roster is what it is, and making drastic changes to the various units could do more harm than good given the lack of practice time. But once the offseason arrives, this area of the team deserves a long look and evaluation. From afar, it's too difficult to ascertain whether that involves a change in the coaching staff. However, after the number of mishaps on special teams this season, anything seems possible.