GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers, already with an NFC North championship and the guarantee of one home playoff game, had a chance to earn homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs on Sunday night.
To get that prize, two things had to happen:
First, in the afternoon wave of games, the slumping Arizona Cardinals had to beat the surging Dallas Cowboys. Dallas had won four in a row, including 56-14 last week against Washington. Arizona had the best record in the NFL until losing its last three games. In its last road game, it got thumped by Detroit 30-12 in perhaps the most shocking upset of the NFL season.
With those trends, the Cowboys were 6 1/2-point favorites at SI Sportsbook. However, the Cardinals (11-5) upset the Cowboys (11-5) 25-22.
Dallas pulled within a field goal on Dak Prescott’s touchdown pass to Amari Cooper and two-point conversion to Cedric Wilson with 4:42 to go.
Arizona needed to answer with a big drive. On second-and-7, Kyler Murray hit veteran tight end Zach Ertz for 11; Dallas burned its second timeout. On the next play, Chase Edmonds ran around right end for 11; Dallas used its last timeout. Runs of 6 by Edmonds and 9 by Murray gave the Cardinals another first down at the 2-minute warning. Murray took three knees to run out the clock.
Then, the Packers needed to beat the Minnesota Vikings in what was billed as one of the coldest games in Lambeau Field history. With Kirk Cousins testing positive for COVID and Sean Mannion set to make his third start at quarterback in seven NFL seasons, the Packers opened the day as 12 1/2-point favorites at SI Sportsbook. The Vikings, however, had won the last two in the series, including 28-22 at Lambeau last season.
The Packers took care of business, racing to a 20-0 halftime advantage. Green Bay led 299-70 in yards; Davante Adams and Aaron Jones each had more yards than the Vikings. AJ Dillon added two touchdown runs in the second half, the second of which making it 37-10 with 8:41 to go.
The Packers had homefield advantage in last year’s playoffs but couldn’t take advantage. After dispatching the Rams 32-18 in the divisional round, they were upset by the Buccaneers 31-26 in the championship game. Those games were played in front of less than 8,000 fans. Home playoff games this year will be played in front of nearly 80,000 fans.
“For the most part, the colder it is, the slower the rush and the offense can have an advantage, especially on a field that could be slick based on the elements,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “And the homefield advantage that we have with our crowd and being at home and not having to travel is a big deal. It’s all those things. The weather is a part of it. The crowd is obviously a big part of it. The footing is a part of it. If you can handle the elements like we’ve handled it for the most part over the years, I think it gives us an advantage.”
Under coach Matt LaFleur, the Packers are 22-2 at home in the regular season and 2-1 in the playoffs. They were the only team that was undefeated at home this season.
“I think right now there’s a lot of ball left in front of us, and if we look any further than the Minnesota Vikings, a team that has beaten us the last two times we’ve played them, then we’re not focused on the right things,” LaFleur said. “As far as the home field’s concerned, I do think it’s going to be a tremendous advantage. You’re talking about a year that’s totally different with packed stadiums. I thought our crowd did an outstanding job the other night of being loud and really supporting our team, and that brings a lot of positive energy, and I think it definitely translates to success on the field.”
Packers 2021 Review: The Year in Photos
Green Bay Packers Year in Review
Relive 2021 through words and photos from Imagn.
Jan. 2: The Packers placed All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari on injured reserve. Arguably the best offensive lineman in the NFL suffered a torn ACL at practice on New Year’s Eve. Had he been healthy, would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have recorded five sacks and defeated the Packers in the NFC Championship Game? Probably not but we’ll never know.
Jan. 16: The Packers beat the Rams 32-18 in the divisional playoffs. With 7,439 in attendance, the Packers clinched the game on Aaron Rodgers’ 58-yard touchdown pass to Allen Lazard midway through the fourth quarter. The touchdown came just a few plays after Rodgers recovered AJ Dillon’s fumble. “I’m definitely a little emotional, just thinking about what we've been through,” Rodgers said. “It got me emotional with the crowd out there today.”
Jan. 23: Aaron Rodgers finally got a home game for the NFC Championship after losing at Seattle in 2014, Atlanta in 2016 and San Francisco in 2019. It didn’t matter. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Packers 31-26 in front of 7,772 fans who made as much noise as possible by pounding cardboard signs into the metal bleachers. Tom Brady threw three interceptions but the Packers couldn’t take advantage. Trailing 31-23 late in the fourth quarter, coach Matt LaFleur opted for a 26-yard field goal rather than keeping the offense on the field for a fourth-and-goal at the 8. The Bucs ran out the clock on Kevin King’s jersey-tugging pass interference.
After the game, Rodgers acknowledged his uncertain future and even thanked reporters – a strong hint that he wasn’t sure if he’d be back for 2021. “There’s a lot of unknowns going into this offseason now. I’m going to have to take some time away, for sure, and clear my head and just kind of see what’s going on with everything. But it’s pretty tough right now, especially thinking about the guys that may or may not be here next year. There’s always change. That’s the only constant in this business. It’s really tough to get to this point. Really, really tough, especially with there being only one bye week in the playoffs. It’s a grind just to get to this point. And that makes the finality of it all kind of hit you like a ton of bricks. That’s why it’s a gutting feeling in your stomach. Ugh.”
Feb. 6: Aaron Rodgers won his third MVP after leading the NFL in completion percentage, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and passer rating – a feat done only once over the last 80 seasons.
“Obviously, growing up and being a big Niners fan first, but then a big Favre fan once Joe (Montana) and Steve retired, watching Brett do it three straight years in the ‘90s was incredible, and something that will probably never be done again,” Rodgers said on Favre’s SiriusXM NFL Radio show.
“I mean, legitimately. To be able to dominate like that for an extended time and to win three in a row is just kind of unheard of. To be able to join that group would be really special. And a lot of times people will talk about, like, ‘I don’t want to talk about awards,’ or whatnot. I just don’t really subscribe to that. We’re competitors first, and getting recognition for what we do is special and it feels good. To be able to win that for a third time, (it) would be really special to join that group of names.”
March 14: Having dug his way out of a mammoth salary-cap hole, general manager Brian Gutekunst scraped up enough money to re-sign Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones to a four-year, $48 million contract that included a $13 million signing bonus. “I feel like this is a perfect fit for me,” said Jones, who would have been the top available running back in free agency. “I’ve been in this offense. I know what comes with it. I know my teammates here, and we feel like we have unfinished business, so I just feel like it was the right fit for me.” In his first four seasons, Jones tied for fourth in franchise history with 37 rushing touchdowns and 11th with 3,364 rushing yards, and ranked among the NFL’s all-time leaders with his 5.17-yard average. This year, he’s topped 1,000 scrimmage yards and reached 10 scrimmage touchdowns for a third consecutive year.
March 23: The Packers re-signed cornerback Kevin King. He had a strong season in 2019, the only season of his career in which he stayed relatively healthy, but gave up two touchdowns in the championship game. With minimal interest in free agency, King stayed with a one-year, $5 million deal that included four void years to decrease his cap hit. Entering Sunday night’s game against Minnesota, he’s played only 29 percent of the defensive snaps with one interception and three passes defensed.
March 24: The “Big Dog,” Marcedes Lewis, was re-signed to bring blocking and leadership. It was a two-year deal worth $8 million that included two void years for accounting purposes. He’s caught 23 passes this season – five less than his combined total from 2018 through 2020. At age 37, Lewis is the NFL’s oldest tight end. His 27-game starts streak is the longest at the position. “I feel like I’m a secret weapon, just in case,” Lewis said. “It’s team-first for me. If I have to put a guy on his neck so ‘33’ can score a touchdown, then I’m going to put that dude on his neck so Aaron Jones can get in the end zone.”
April 29: Just hours before the NFL Draft started, word broke of Aaron Rodgers’ fractured relationship with the Packers. Sensing no commitment from the franchise, Rodgers reportedly wanted out of Green Bay, according to ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter.
Meanwhile, the Packers selected cornerback Eric Stokes with their first-round pick. While he’s struggled here and there, Stokes has had a strong rookie season.
June 9: During Day 2 of the mandatory minicamp, De’Vondre Campbell walked out of the Hutson Center with a No. 59 jersey draped over his shoulder. A 70-game starter in five seasons, Campbell wound up being one of the great free-agent signings in the NFL. The Packers gave him a one-year, $2 million contract that included four void years for accounting purposes. He ranks 55th among off-the-ball linebackers in annual salary but has posted elite production. “He’s playing at a really high level, a Pro Bowl level, in my opinion,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “He’s been a great addition to this football team, and I’ve just got so much respect for him. He’s just been everything that we could ever want in a player and then some.”
July 27: After a tumultuous offseason filled with all sorts of rumors and speculation, Aaron Rodgers arrived at training camp for his 14th season as the team’s starting quarterback. As part of a restructured contract to create cap space, the team agreed to void the 2023 season, his final year under contract, and would “review” the status of the 2022 season after the upcoming season. That set the stage for a “Last Dance” scenario.
July 28: On Day 1 of camp, Aaron Rodgers aired his list of grievances. “I just have to focus on this season. To be in my 17th season is really special. I don’t take that for granted. I’m not a victim here at all, I just want to reiterate that. I’ve been paid a ton of money by this organization. I’m so thankful to be a starter here for my 14th season. Not many guys have the opportunity to do that. So, I don’t feel like anything has been done to me. It’s a business. It’s an incredible opportunity to play this game. But it’s a tough business, too, though, and this is part of it. I totally get that point and that’s not lost on me. That’s why I’m just going to enjoy this season like I did last year, have the right perspective, and then make decisions at the end of the season.”
July 28: The Packers acquired Randall Cobb from the Texans for a sixth-round draft pick. General manager Brian Gutekunst made clear the trade was done for Aaron Rodgers. “We’re always going to do what we think is best for the Green Bay Packers, and that is for the Green Bay Packers as a whole,” he said. “And sometimes when you isolate it, it may not look that way, but when it incorporates other things like your quarterback and things like that, then it becomes what’s best for the Green Bay Packers.” Rodgers was right. Cobb has caught 28-of-39 targets and generally delivered when the Packers needed him. Against the Rams, he provided a big chunk of the first-half offense by catching 4-of-5 balls for 95 yards and one touchdown. He scored two touchdowns apiece against Pittsburgh and Arizona, the latter coming with Davante Adams, Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling out of the lineup. Cobb was designated for return from injured reserve on Thursday following core-muscle surgery.
Aug. 31: The Packers sent a sixth-round pick to the Rams in exchange for punter Corey Bojorquez and a seventh-round pick. Bojorquez has been phenomenal, ranking among the league leaders in net average until a December debacle against Chicago.
Sept. 12: After keeping almost all its starters in bubble wrap for the preseason, Green Bay looked totally ill-prepared in its 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints in the season-opening game in Jacksonville. It was a rough one for us. Offensively, we were bad. Defensively, we couldn’t get off the field.” Those silver-lining messages were right. The Buccaneers were whacked 38-3 by the Saints last season but won the Super Bowl. Green Bay’s championship odds plunged from +1000 to +1400 after the game but it's a prime championship contender heading into the playoffs.
Sept. 17: Za’Darius Smith was placed on injured reserve. Dogged by a back injury, Smith practiced just once during training camp and gave it a go during the season-opening loss to the Saints. Smith eventually had back surgery. At this point, the odds seem against him playing for the Packers again this season – or, perhaps, ever again.
Sept. 20: The Packers beat the Detroit Lions 35-17 to improve to 1-1. They trailed 17-14 at halftime but righted the ship to their season by dominating the second half to kick-start a seven-game winning streak. Aaron Jones scored four touchdowns. “Sometimes, it just takes one play,” Rodgers said. For Green Bay, it was a 50-yard completion to Davante Adams on a third-and-12 to start the third quarter.
Sept. 26: Mason Crosby made a 51-yard field goal as time expired as the Packers beat the 49ers 30-28. Starting at their 25 with 37 seconds remaining, Rodgers connected with Davante Adams for gains of 25 and 17 yards to set up the winning kick. “Celebrating with the guys in the end zone, seeing that energy and feeling that juice is what it's all about,” Crosby said. “And then carrying on into the locker room and guys pouring water all over my head and on everybody, that's what this game is all about. It was really special.”