When Aaron Rodgers performs at his absolute best, his game is less domination than it is teasing and taunting Green Bay's opponents until their will is broken.
So it was Sunday in Minnesota. Time and again, the Vikings forced Rodgers' offense into third downs. Almost without fail, Rodgers found his way out of the mess. On one particular occasion, a 3rd-and-2 in Minnesota territory, Rodgers avoided the pass rush to scramble for 14 yards. After trotting out of bounds, the Packers' QB looked back to ensure there were no flags on the play, then turned, smirked and playfully signaled first down.
The Vikings' defense was a mouse being pawed at by a cat. A donkey ignorantly chasing down a carrot out of its reach.
Green Bay faced 18 third-down situations in its 44-31 win. Rodgers converted 13 of them -- with two Vikings stops coming in the fourth quarter, with the game already decided. Just for good measure, the Packers moved the sticks on two fourth-down tries, too: a seven-yard completion to John Kuhn and later an eight-yarder to Jordy Nelson, both so comically easy that Rodgers would be forgiven if he let out a little chuckle along the way.
Minnesota needed some magic to even think about an upset here, in front of a home crowd heavily infiltrated by Packers fans. The necessary jolt of life came early, as Cordarrelle Patterson raced the opening kickoff back 109 yards for a touchdown.
The Packers' response: Who cares?
Their ensuing possession lasted 15 plays and chewed up 90 yards. Rodgers capped it with an absolutely ludicrous completion to a fully-covered Jordy Nelson from 11 yards out. That pair worked their magic again in the second quarter, right after Minnesota knotted the game up at 10. On 3rd-and-6, with momentum threatening to swing toward the Vikings, Rodgers somehow found a microscopic window and hit Nelson on the run for what became a 76-yard score.
"The first throw was a tight one, [Nelson] got his head around just in time and made the catch," Rodgers told NBC's Michelle Tafoya. "The second one ... he made an amazing catch and run. It's no surprise he's playing this well."
It helps that Nelson has Rodgers delivering him the football.
Greek mythology tells us the story of Tantalus, doomed to hunger and thirst by the gods, forced to stand forever in a pool that receded when he coveted a drink and below a tree that hid its fruit when he asked for food.
Perhaps Minnesota's Week 8 was not quite as torturous as that existence. But it may have felt like it for the three hours or so that this matchup lasted. The home team had chance after chance ... after chance after chance after chance ... to bury Rodgers and force a punt.
It failed to seal the deal even once. The Packers had eight possessions Sunday night. They scored on seven and took a knee to end the game on the final one, with a Micah Hyde punt-return TD mixed in.
"We got a great team, very well-coached, guys are ready to play," Rodgers said. "It was loud in here, a tough environment, but guys stepped up."
Minnesota's story will come back, as it has throughout this season, to the play of its quarterback. Christian Ponder proved indecisive again in a 14-of-21 showing that hardly gave his team a chance. Seemingly for each Rodgers' third-down conversion, Ponder took a sack or badly overthrew a receiver.
By the end of the night, he heard those all-too-familiar boos from the Vikings faithful, who no doubt are tired of wondering if their franchise ever will find a QB to complement the transcendent Adrian Peterson.
Blaming this latest setback fully on Ponder, though, ignores that Minnesota's defense endured a helpless 60 minutes against one of the top quarterbacks in football. The result was on Ponder's shoulders only in that he was not capable of doing for the Vikings' offense what Aaron Rodgers did for his. But that is a bar not many quarterbacks can reach on a consistent basis.
"Aaron managed this thing so well," Packers coach Mike McCarthy told Milwaukee's NBC affiliate. "I can't say enough about his management skills, let alone his playing ability."
As Rodgers pointed out after his team's fifth win of the season, there were others in the mix. Nelson, for one, made difficult grab upon difficult grab, often in critical spots. Meanwhile, running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined for 151 yards and two touchdowns, continuing the Packers' ongoing discovery of a potent run game.
Still, this Green Bay victory -- so many Green Bay victories -- would not have happened without Rodgers locking into a groove from the get-go. Minnesota tried everything it could think of on defense, from adjusting coverages to changing pressure packages. None of it worked, and Rodgers seemed to know from the first moments Sunday night that nothing would. "He's the top quarterback in the league, in my opinion," said Nelson of Rodgers on NBC's postgame show. "He's going to lead this team ... and make sure guys know what they're doing."