NFC North: Rubicon
November, 21, 2010
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesGreen Bay has moved on from the Brett Favre era and did so with a cathartic victory over the Vikings.MINNEAPOLIS -- With about 10 minutes remaining Sunday at the Metrodome, Charles Woodson allowed himself a moment to scan the stands. He smiled at what he saw: Minnesota Vikings fans already were streaming toward the exits, unwilling to watch another down.
"The best thing about a game like today," the Packers' cornerback said, "is at the end of the game watching their fans leave. If you come in and do that, you've done your job. ... That's what happens when you come in and dominate. That felt good."
Woodson then offered the obligatory caveat.
"It needs to be short-lived," he said.
Indeed, the reality is that Woodson's Green Bay Packers (7-3) remain entwined in a two-team race with the Chicago Bears for the NFC North title. But for the briefest of moments Sunday, I think everyone associated with the Packers accepted and thoroughly enjoyed the significance of their 31-3 dismantling of the Vikings (3-7).
To me, Sunday marked the final stitch in a tapestry three years in the making. The Packers have weathered the storm left by quarterback Brett Favre's departure, emerging a stronger and more complete team than they were in his final season with them. They ceded a pair of NFC North titles to the Vikings in the process, but anyone who watched the Packers' aggression and felt their glee Sunday should understand the symbolism involved.
Remember when the Packers described their parting with Favre as a "crossing of the Rubicon?" It has taken three years, but they've finally landed on the other side.
Evidence was plentiful Sunday at the Metrodome.
It started, honestly, when the Packers won the opening coin toss. Coach Mike McCarthy deferred the decision to the second half, putting his defense on the field for the opening series. How often have you seen McCarthy, a confident play-caller, delay the arrival of his offense on the field?
McCarthy chose to put his defense -- which has now limited opponents to 10 points in its past three games -- in control.
"I've never deferred a coin toss in my career here and there's a number of factors that go into making that decision," he said. McCarthy wouldn't identify those factors, but one seemed obvious: He knew the Packers' defense has been much better than the Vikings' offense this season and couldn't wait to get it going.
It was the right call from a micro perspective; the Vikings lost 6 yards on their opening possession courtesy of a false start and a sack, while the Packers set a frenetic defensive tone. From a macro perspective, the decision revealed some growth from McCarthy as a coach. The formerly pass-happy offensive coordinator has come a long way in his regard for total team football.
AP Photo/Hannah FoslienBrett Favre completed just 17-of-38 and had a 51.2 passer rating in Minnesota's loss.
That defense provided Sunday's singular turning point, channeling a symbolic transfer of game-changing playmaking from Favre. Trailing 10-3 late in the second quarter, Favre drove the Vikings to the Packers' 25-yard line in hopes of pulling into a tie at halftime. But with 1 minute, 13 seconds remaining, Packers cornerback Tramon Williams smartly jumped a route and intercepted a pass intended for receiver Percy Harvin. The Packers essentially put the game away by driving for Aaron Rodgers' 3-yard touchdown pass to James Jones on the ensuing possession.
Afterward, Williams said he knew the play even before the snap, immediately recognizing that Harvin would run a slant.
"I read the formation," Williams said. "I knew the routes that come out of it, and it was exactly what I expected and I acted on it."
Many Packers players and coaches felt enormous satisfaction watching Williams outsmart Favre. I would imagine at least a few also enjoyed the fact that his play sparked a heated sideline exchange between Favre and Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Favre caused the Packers so many headaches over the past few years, reaching a height during last season's sweep, that everyone should be allowed a moment for some sadistic pleasure in his professional demise.
Woodson, among others, has admitted the Packers put too much emotion into last season's matchups -- which Favre won with two dominating performances.
"We read a little bit too much into it and just got ourselves too excited about playing against Favre and that whole dynamic," Woodson said. "This year, the couple of games we came into these matches just knowing that we need to go out and play football and good things will happen. ... We treated this like another game."
I would suggest there were a few moments Sunday when this was not just another game, most notably Rodgers' 22-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings with 9:22 remaining. The play came on third-and-1, and no one would have excused the Packers for continuing to run out the clock.
Consider that play the final climb up the shore of the Rubicon. The Packers now find themselves exactly where they planned to be upon passing the torch from Favre to Rodgers. Although it might have come a year or two later than they hoped, the Packers are tied for the NFC North lead and must be considered one of the best teams in football as Week 11 closes.
Over the past 10 months, they have watched the Vikings ride Favre from the NFC Championship Game to what appears to be a losing season. The Vikings now appear washed down the river, headed toward the falls, while the Packers victoriously stand ashore.
"We're a good football team," McCarthy said. "We've always known that we were a good football team. We've got our foot on the gas, hands on the wheel and we're looking straight ahead."
The purge is complete. By late Sunday afternoon, everyone -- Favre, the Vikings and their fans -- was vanquished. Finally.