Aaron Rodgers' return saved the Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As Aaron Rodgers limped across the locker room Sunday evening, tape still wrapped around his injured left calf, receiver Randall Cobb stopped him.

He threw his arms around the Green Bay Packers quarterback.

"You're unbelievable, man," Cobb told him. "Unbelievable."

The two remained locked in an embrace.

"Keep doing your thing," Cobb said.

Few among the 78,408 at Lambeau Field thought that would even be possible after they saw Rodgers ride shotgun on a cart to the locker room late in the second quarter of Sunday's 30-20 victory over the Detroit Lions -- a win that gave the Packers (12-4) the NFC North title for the fourth straight year, the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and a much-needed first-round bye.

A week after Rodgers first pulled his left calf muscle, he did it again, only much worse this time. The previous Sunday at Tampa Bay, he didn't miss a single snap. On this Sunday, however, he missed the Packers' final possession of the first half and first one of the second half. During that time, the Packers saw their 14-0 lead evaporate.

Rodgers' calf seized up as he scrambled to his right, yet he still managed to fling a 4-yard touchdown pass to Cobb with 2:24 left in the second quarter. When he needed help to get up after that play, the stadium went silent.

"I didn't know if he could come back from that," right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "It looked pretty bad, like he got shot how he went down on that touchdown pass."

No one saw Rodgers at halftime. He was with team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie and the training staff, who applied heat and then tape. Rodgers said he did not take any painkillers.

"I was worried about the severity of the injury and my ability to walk off the field at that point," Rodgers said. "But once I got back in the locker room, I was actually watching the game on TV with some heat on my calf thinking if I could finagle myself to go back in."

With the third quarter already underway, Rodgers waited in the tunnel while backup Matt Flynn handled the first series. When the offense went three-and-out, Rodgers made his way back to the bench as the crowd serenaded him with chants of "MVP, MVP."

"I thought of Willis Reed hobbling on to the court when he came back [to help the New York Knicks win Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals]," Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said.

Like a tag-team wrestler tapping his partner out, Rodgers had a message for Flynn.

"I'm sitting on the bench, and he comes over, taps me on the shoulder and says, 'I've got it,'" Flynn said. "And there he goes."

On his first throw after his return, Rodgers fired a laser to Cobb for a 29-yard gain. He then capped that seven-play, 60-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Cobb. Coach Mike McCarthy kept Rodgers in the shotgun and even used some pistol formations to help limit the distance Rodgers had to cover on handoffs.

As usual, Rodgers thrived. He completed 11-of-13 post-injury passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. For the day, he was 17-of-22 for 226 yards with two touchdowns and not a single interception to close his case for the MVP. His final regular-season numbers looked like this: 38 touchdowns, five interceptions, 4,381 yards and a passer rating of 112.2.

"He's, in my opinion, the most valuable player in the National Football League this year," McCarthy said. "I think what he demonstrated tonight in a must-win game against an excellent opponent, I think it's clear what he means to our football team."

It didn't hurt that Eddie Lacy, with 100 yards on 26 carries, became the first running back this season to reach the century mark against the Lions' top-ranked rushing defense.

Imagine what might have been, had Rodgers been unable to return. A loss would have relegated the Packers to a wild-card game on the road, perhaps as early as Saturday, which would have given Rodgers less than a week to recover. Instead, the Packers will enjoy a week off, followed by a home game Jan. 11 against one of three possible opponents (Dallas, Arizona or Carolina).

"It's critical," McCarthy said of the time off. "He'd be on the same time clock he was on coming from Tampa into this game -- or maybe six days. I don't even know when we would have played this week if it went the other way. I think the two weeks is huge for us."