GREEN BAY – Jordy Nelson had been standing at his locker for roughly 20 minutes, most of them trying to put quarterback Matt Flynn’s performance into words. The wide receiver had been there so long, he was fresh out of adjectives – and exhausted.
“You guys mind if I sit down?” Nelson said with a smile.
A few lockers down, tight end Tom Crabtree was trying to do the same with a little bit of creativity. He failed.
“As clichéd and over-used a word as it is, I think it’s very fitting in this situation – that was amazing,” Crabtree said, smiling too.
And right guard Josh Sitton? As Flynn’s best friend on the team, he just wanted to express his pride with as few profanities as possible.
“It was frickin’ awesome,” Sitton said as he left the locker room. “It was fun as hell, man.”
Three men, three perspectives, one common feeling: Speechless.
In March, some NFL team will make Flynn its starting quarterback with a very rich unrestricted free agent contract. But Sunday at chilly Lambeau Field, Flynn’s unprecedented performance -- 31 of 44 for a team-record 480 yards with a franchise-record six touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 136.4 – and the Green Bay Packers’ 45-41 victory over the Detroit Lions put the perfect finishing touch on the Packers’ 15-1 regular season.
Not only was coach Mike McCarthy able to sit or rest his most important or injured players, the top-seeded Packers still won with their jayvee team, allowing them to sweep their NFC North games (6-0), become only the sixth team in NFL history to finish with a record of 15-1 or better and take winning momentum into their playoff bye week in advance of their next game – an NFC Divisional Playoff Game on Sunday, Jan. 15 at Lambeau Field.
“It was clearly one of the best performances I’ve been a part of. No doubt about it. The whole world got to see what we see every day,” McCarthy gushed afterward. “When it counted most, he was right on point. What a great performance by our football team and really headed there by Matt Flynn.
“It sends us into the playoffs in the right mindset to continue the process. It’s a new season. There are six teams that we’re battling against to get to Indianapolis. We’re really focused on improving as a team. We don’t do everything exactly right. There are some things that we did today that we haven’t done. We’ll continue to learn. It’s a very accountable group of men. But the most important thing is in two weeks, when we step out on Lambeau, we play our best football.”
The Packers, at least in terms of playoff positioning, had nothing to play for, and their lineup suggested such. McCarthy not only sat the potential NFL MVP (quarterback Aaron Rodgers) and his two best defensive players (cornerback Charles Woodson and linebacker Clay Matthews), but the team was also without four other starters/key players with varying degrees of injuries (wide receiver Greg Jennings, receiver/kick returner Randall Cobb, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and running back James Starks).
The Lions, meanwhile, came in with a chance to move up to the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs (avoiding an unenviable first-round date at New Orleans) and an opportunity to snap a 20-game losing streak against the Packers in Wisconsin (dating back to 1991). Instead, they watched Flynn, Nelson (nine receptions, 162 yards, three touchdowns) completely embarrass the Lions defense, which will now have to contend with Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-powered offense at the Louisiana Superdome on Saturday night.
“They couldn’t have played worse. We covered poorly, we tackled poorly, we played man-to-man poorly, we blitzed poorly, we played zone poorly,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “This certainly was not a throw-away game for us. Maybe it makes us angry. We’ll see.”
We’ll also see if the Packers can defend their Super Bowl XLV championship with a defense that, albeit without Woodson and Matthews, surrendered an astronomical 575 yards of offense, primarily through the air by quarterback Matthew Stafford (36 of 59, 520 yards, five TDs, two INTs, 103.8 rating) to wide receiver Calvin Johnson (11 receptions, 244 yards, one TD).
“We definitely don’t like that,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “We definitely don’t want to do that, but that’s what happened. (We’re) definitely not happy giving up that many yards. (But) I think we’re great. I think we’re set up perfectly. I think it worked out good – Coach rested players that needed to be rested, sat the players that needed to be sat. We feel good going into this playoff game. We feel excellent. This is probably the healthiest we’ve been all year going into the playoffs.”
Given the way things started Sunday, the outcome was even more stunning. After hitting Donald Driver for a 17-yard gain on the first play, Flynn faced third-and-10 at the Green Bay 37-yard line. As he dropped back, veteran left tackle Chad Clifton was beaten badly, and Lions defensive tackle Sammie Hill hit Flynn, forcing a fumble that linebacker Stephen Tulloch recovered. Four plays later, Stafford hit Titus Young for an 8-yard touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, fill-in kickoff returner Pat Lee let the ball bounce off his leg in the end zone. It trickled over the goal line, making it a live ball, but Lee picked it up and took a knee, resulting in a safety. Two minutes into the game, the Lions had a 9-0 lead.
“Before the game, after the first drive, after the second drive … I never thought this would be a six-touchdown game. But that's what it took,” said Flynn, who was making his second NFL start (the first coming when Rodgers sat out with a concussion on Dec. 19, 2010 at New England) and had played only in garbage time in his four previous appearances this season. “It's pretty incredible to sit back now and see what we did in a game. But that's what was necessary; that's what it took to win.”
The Packers’ next drive stalled inside the Detroit 10-yard line, forcing them to settle for a 22-yard Mason Crosby field goal. But after the Green Bay defense got the first of its four takeaways when linebacker Desmond Bishop stripped running back Kevin Smith and safety Morgan Burnett recovered, Flynn and Nelson capitalized with a 7-yard touchdown on which Nelson delivered a wicked stiff-arm on cornerback Alphonso Smith to give the Packers a 10-9 lead.
That lit the fuse on the fireworks display. When Stafford and Johnson hooked up on a 13-yard TD to make it 16-10, Flynn and the Packers responded with Ryan Grant’s 80-yard touchdown on a screen pass to make it 17-16. When Nelson’s terrific catch over Alphonso Smith for a 36-yard TD made it 24-19 at halftime, the Lions reclaimed the lead at 26-24 on Young’s second TD catch midway through the third quarter.
When Flynn and Nelson hooked up a third time – this time on a 58-yard touchdown bomb – to put the Packers up 31-26, the lead lasted all of 2:25 before Kevin Smith’s 5-yard TD and Tony Scheffler’s 2-point conversion catch put Detroit back on top 34-31. And when Flynn found a wide-open Driver for a 35-yard touchdown on third-and-8 to retake the lead at 38-34, the Lions took it back (after the teams traded punts) on Stafford’s fifth TD pass, a 12-yarder to Scheffler to make it 41-38 with 2:39 left to play.
That set the stage for Flynn and the Packers offense.
“Business as usual,” Sitton said. “He had already thrown for five touchdowns, so I think we had all the confidence in the world.”
With good reason. After James Jones started the drive with a terrific diving catch for 16 yards and Ndamukong Suh’s offsides penalty converted a third-and-3 for the Packers, Flynn faced a third-and-4 from the Detroit 46 with 1:25 to play. Coolly, he dropped back, then stepped up in the pocket and dropped a 40-yard rainbow into Jones’ soft hands at the Detroit 6 after Jones’ double-move turned cornerback Chris Houston around.
“I was able to get behind him. We were talking all game about getting behind (No.) 23 and it came down to clutch time and we were able to make a play,” Jones said. “We told y’all all week that Matt was a gamer. He just showed the world what Matt Flynn can do. And he can do it real good.”
Two plays later, on second-and-goal, Flynn rifled a 6-yard TD to tight end Jermichael Finley to take the lead.
“I thought those two throws he made in the 2-minute drill were special,” McCarthy said. “That’s what you need as a young quarterback to start building your success.”
And while the Lions drove into Packers’ territory when they got the ball back with 1:10 to go, cornerback Sam Shields sealed the win with an interception at the Green Bay 20, sending the Packers into their postseason bye week and sending the Lions back to Detroit with their 21st straight loss in Wisconsin.
“We would have felt like we had momentum going into the playoffs before this game without this game happening,” Flynn explained. “We have a great opportunity in front of us. We have a great team and I think this was just kind of icing on the cake, helping us as we go into the playoffs.
“I played well last year when I started against New England. We played well as an offense, but we didn’t get it done. We didn’t win the game. We had too many mistakes that we made. I knew I was 0-1 as a starter going into today, and that was my main focus all week. That was my main focus in the game – (whether) we had to run the ball 30 times, or if we had to throw the ball. And so, we got it done. And I’m extremely happy about that.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.