GREEN BAY, Wis. -- After the second or the third bounce pass Joe Webb threw Saturday night -- I can't remember which one -- it became quite clear the Green Bay Packers would be the NFC North team whose season would continue for at least one more week. And so I spent much of the evening watching the Packers with an eye toward their looming rematch with the San Francisco 49ers next weekend.
If nothing else, the Packers' 24-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings provided another example of the quiet efficiency they developed over the second half of the season, a quality that is important in the postseason and seems crucial against an opponent such as the 49ers.
The Packers' defense physically overwhelmed the Vikings, limiting them to 167 yards through three quarters before garbage time began. The Packers finally stood up tailback Adrian Peterson, holding him to 99 yards on 22 carries and no runs longer than 18 yards. They did not commit a turnover, took only two penalties and were unfazed by the Vikings' surprise change at quarterback.
"This is a great game to play before we face San Francisco," defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. "They try to pound the ball with Frank Gore and the other running backs they have. So this is a good game to warm up with."
If you were disappointed that the Packers didn't light up the Vikings with their passing game, especially after getting their top four receivers on the field for the first time since September, you haven't been paying attention recently. The Packers' offense has evolved from the pass-happy scheme the 49ers stymied in Week 1. In fact, running backs DuJuan Harris and John Kuhn were the focal points Saturday night.
Harris and Kuhn combined for three touchdowns and half of the Packers' total touches (27 of 54). As much as you might want to see the Packers' offense recapture its aesthetic beauty in the playoffs, well, that just isn't the team Green Bay has become nor is it the kind of team it needs to be.
Afterward, guard T.J. Lang had a hard time digesting a performance that included a modest 20 first downs and eight punts. "I don't want to be too negative," Lang said, "but it was pretty poor. Our defense won that game."
The better perspective might have come from defensive back Charles Woodson, who noted that the Packers now have a team that can conquer physical playoff matchups, whether it is Peterson and the Vikings or Gore and the 49ers' defense.
"We're a better team now," Woodson said. "That's the bottom line, from both sides of the ball. I think we're a team right now that is battle-tested. We've been in some tight ballgames and been able to pull them out. We can go into a tough environment against a good team."
Woodson made a triumphant return from a fractured collarbone that cost him 11 games this season, setting a physical tone with a takedown of Peterson on the opening drive and finishing with six tackles. As we discussed during the season, the Packers developed a new level of toughness while some of their best players were sidelined. On Saturday night, they began their playoff march by combining that experience with their full complement of stars -- from Woodson to linebacker Clay Matthews (two sacks) to receivers Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb (eight combined catches for 119 yards).
Woodson turned away suggestions that the Packers have all the pieces in place to win their second Super Bowl in three seasons, saying: "I don't want to prematurely speak on anything."
But I will.
Beating the 49ers at Candlestick Park will be a difficult task, especially when you recall how thoroughly the 49ers won the teams' Week 1 game. On Saturday night, however, we saw a Packers team that shrugged off two embarrassing performances against Peterson, figured out what it did wrong -- overpursuit, mostly -- and shut him down.
We saw a team perfectly willing to look away from its top weapons when the Vikings left its running backs unaccounted for in coverage. We saw a team that did not make a major mistake despite a decadelong history of doing so in home playoff games.
Those factors combined are why I continue to consider the Packers to be as poised as any team in the NFL to win the Super Bowl. Woodson said the Packers "are a long way from where we want to be," but that might be more a matter of geography than progress. This is a team that is going places.