GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Lambeau Field was growing tense midway through the third quarter Sunday. The Green Bay Packers had taken leads of 14-0 and 24-14 over the New York Giants, but they still hadn't put the game away. The Giants were hanging around and trailed by only seven points when the Packers took possession at their 30-yard line.
A loss would have struck a huge blow to the Packers' playoff hopes. At this moment of truth, it was both relieving and instructive to see what the Packers did next.
Play No. 1: Receiver Donald Driver makes a diving 33-yard catch over the middle.
Play No. 2: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers spots receiver Greg Jennings in single coverage, changes the play at the line of scrimmage and completes a 36-yard pass down the right sideline to the Giants' 1-yard line.
Play No. 3: Tailback Brandon Jackson is stopped for no gain. (In the Packers' playbook, that call is referred to as "keeping them honest.")
I could write for days about how well the Packers' defense has played this season and still not tell the entire story. But when the pundit class of NFL observers chose the Packers as its consensus preseason favorite in this division, it wasn't because of Dom Capers' schemes or Clay Matthews' pass rush. No, the Packers' path to elite status was conceived -- both internally and externally -- to be generated from their downfield passing game.
Rodgers' arm and accuracy, along with his array of proven targets, gave the Packers something that few teams have and all champions need: the ability to strike at any moment. It hasn't always been evident this season, but Sunday the Packers rode it to the doorstep of the playoffs.
"It's something we do very well," Rodgers said, "[and] it's something we work on a lot."
Rodgers produced one of the best games of his career, returning fresh and energetic after a concussion sidelined him for one start. He threw for a career-high 404 yards, tied his previous high with four touchdown passes and produced the second-highest passer rating of his career (139.9).
There is nothing more impressive than an NFL team imposing its strength on a team that knows full well what's coming. The Packers haven't been much of a running team all year. Somehow, they managed to find favorable matchups and even work their play-action game to precision. They did this against a Giants team that should have been exclusively concerned with the Packers' receivers.
But it started on their second possession, when Giants safety Deon Grant bit on a play-action fake and gave Jordy Nelson the room he needed for an 80-yard scoring play. Although their three tailbacks combined for only 83 yards on 33 carries, the Packers still completed 11 of 12 play-action passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"We were in such a rhythm throwing the football on time," Rodgers said. "We just had a number of good calls. It was just a matter of rolling through them."
Big passes or not, I'm guessing that a few of you were starting to get nervous after the Giants pulled to 24-17. What once appeared to be an early blowout was threatening to tighten into the kind of close game the Packers have struggled in this season. (In case you haven't heard, they are 2-6 in games decided by four or fewer points this season.)
Interestingly enough, the Packers had reviewed that very point as a group at halftime.
"We've been in some tight ballgames," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "It's been well-documented. [We said,] 'We've got to finish better in these last 30 minutes. We've got to push each other to another level.' [Players] kind of said it as much as I said it. They were adamant about it."
And after a little delay, that's how the Packers put themselves in position to clinch a wild-card playoff berth next weekend: Deep pass. Deep pass. A throwaway run. Pass into the end zone for a touchdown.
"[The sequence] was huge," Jennings said. "They had scored previously on their drive, and the play [Driver] was able to make kept us going. ... We were able to move the ball and put points on the board with that possession. That definitely catapulted us to a victory today."
(I'm all about the catapult. Whenever a sports figure references it, I think of an entire team suspended in a huge medieval device, being tossed through the air and over a victory ribbon. But I digress ...)
The Packers will need no less of an effort next Sunday against the Chicago Bears, the NFC North champions who are likely to be fighting for a first-round playoff bye in this Week 17 showdown.
Rodgers joked that he was rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles to lose one of their next two games -- against the Minnesota Vikings or Dallas Cowboys -- to give the Bears that position before next Sunday's 4:15 kickoff.
"Maybe [they would] rest some of those defensive studs they have," Rodgers said, smiling.
As an NFC North community, let's root against that scenario.
Let's find out whether the Packers found their elite mojo in Week 16, or if they simply produced a precision game against an opponent still reeling from a devastating loss the week before.
Let's see if the Packers can position themselves to make some noise in the NFC playoffs, or if they are destined for an offseason of "what-ifs."
Let's see if they can impose their strength on the NFC's presumptive No. 2 seed, or if this up will be followed by another down.
"This has been an up-and-down year," Rodgers said. "A lot of things have happened, both positively and negatively, that we might not have expected. But we go into the last game of the season with a chance to make the playoffs, and that's all we can ask for."
A week from Sunday, we'll find out if it was enough for the Packers.