- Rob Demovsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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Then, near the middle of Mall of America Field, Jennings pulled aside the Green Bay Packers quarterback. We may never know what Jennings told Rodgers, his teammate for seven years. Rodgers would not say, and Jennings bolted from the locker room before anyone got the chance to ask. But it was clear Jennings did most of the talking.
That's about all he did of any consequence during the Packers' 44-31 victory that kept them in first place in the NFC North at 5-2. Four days after he said he was “just messing around” when he criticized Rodgers and his former team over the summer, Jennings caught only one pass for 9 yards against his old mates.
And if he were paying attention when he was on the sideline watching Rodgers and the Packers' offense, he would have been reminded of what he left behind when he signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the Vikings in March.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy decided during his meetings last week to use receiver Jordy Nelson in the slot -- the spot Jennings played so often on the way to catching 425 passes for 6,537 yards and 53 touchdowns during his career with the Packers, and the spot that Randall Cobb occupied before he broke his leg on Oct. 13 against the Baltimore Ravens. McCarthy made the adjustment last week, after Nelson was limited to just five catches for 42 yards in Week 7 against the Cleveland Browns.
Against the Vikings, Nelson flourished. He caught seven passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Both of his scoring plays -- an 11-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter and a 76-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter -- came from the slot position.
“He's just a smart player,” Rodgers said of Nelson. “He can play anywhere. He can play inside, outside. He understands all the route concepts. We tried to get him in positions where we could get him singled up. We like those matchups when we can get him one-on-one, whether that's inside or outside. He's such a valuable resource to our team.”
In some ways, he's their only resource, at least in the passing game. Not only were the Packers without Cobb, who is on injured reserve designated to return, they played without receiver James Jones (knee) and tight end Jermichael Finley (neck).
So it was up to Rodgers, Nelson and the running game. The Packers matched their season high with 182 rushing yards, including 94 from rookie Eddie Lacy and another 57 from James Starks. Both also ran for touchdowns.
But it was Nelson's play in the slot that will be remembered.
On third-and-2 from the Vikings' 11-yard line in the first quarter, Nelson lined up in the slot to the right against cornerback Josh Robinson. He ran a corner route and with Robinson in tight coverage, he plucked the ball out of the air in the back of the end zone.
On his 76-yard touchdown, the Vikings blitzed, forcing linebacker Chad Greenway to move over to Nelson, who again lined up in the slot to the right. Sensing the pressure, Rodgers threw a quick strike to Nelson, who barely turned his head in time to see the ball coming down the seam. Nelson made one cut to the left, leaving Greenway in his wake, and was gone.
“I probably could've bent it in there a little bit more just to make it a tad bit easier,” Nelson said. “But it worked.”
Nelson could not remember the last time he took so many snaps from the slot, and in the second half he returned mostly to his outside position. The truth is, it didn't matter where he lined up; he and Rodgers were dialed in. Nelson caught seven of the eight passes that were thrown his way.
“I like Jordy everywhere,” McCarthy said. “Jordy just does it right all of the time. He can play any position; he can run any route. His body language is something that young receivers should take note of. He's an excellent target for a quarterback to throw to. You can see obviously on the corner throw where Aaron puts the ball, there's a lot of trust there. Jordy's opportunity really came in the slot frankly due to the injuries, but he can play anywhere.”
The Packers controlled the clock, keeping the ball for 40 minutes, 54 seconds, including the first 8 minutes, 10 seconds of the third quarter. The Vikings, in that quarter, had the ball for only 2 minutes, 2 seconds and ran just three offensive plays.
Rodgers was masterful on third down, completing all 10 of his passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His passer rating on third down was the maximum, 158.3. In all, the Packers converted 13 of 18 third downs and 2 of 2 fourth downs.
In 29 attempts, Rodgers had only five incompletions. By unofficial count, at least two were deliberate throwaways and one was a drop (by rookie Myles White). Rodgers threw for 285 yards, never turned the ball over and finished with a passer rating of 130.6 and a total QBR of 98.6 (the highest of any start during his career).
Although he wouldn't say anything about Jennings after the game, it was almost as if Rodgers wanted this one even more because of him.
“I wasn't going to let this team beat us,” Rodgers said.
And neither he nor Nelson did.