HOUSTON -- The Green Bay Packers just proved that a victory in Week 6 can be enough to save an entire season.
They came into Reliant Stadium looking very much like a team lurching toward an underwhelming year. They walked out with a 42-24 win over the Houston Texans that wasn't nearly as close as the score suggests. The Packers didn't merely need a win. They also needed to remind the NFL that they're still capable of being a dangerous threat in the postseason.
This was the Green Bay team we'd been expecting to see all season. It was Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing six touchdown passes against a Houston squad that boasted the league's toughest defense. It was Packers wide receivers such as Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb racing past hapless Texans cornerbacks for continual big plays. Houston also had an offense that had been averaging nearly 30 points a game. It never came close to keeping pace with the rejuvenated Packers on this night.
The skeptics will say this was one rough evening for a Texans team that entered Sunday's game without a loss. The more enlightened will see it for what it really was: an indication that Green Bay, now 3-3, shouldn't be written off just yet.
"This was important," Rodgers said after completing 24 of 37 passes for 338 yards and a career-high six touchdowns. "We've had a few games not go our way but being 2-4 would've been difficult.
"You can't build up too many losses. The way Chicago is playing [the Bears are 4-1], we can't afford to get too far behind them."
As much as we like to revel in great comeback stories, it would've been hard to believe in the Packers if they'd lost this contest. They had two wins coming in and they'd really had just one noteworthy victory -- a Week 2 thrashing of the Chicago Bears in Lambeau Field. They'd been beaten down by the 49ers in their season opener, robbed of a victory by replacement refs in Seattle and thoroughly humbled by blowing an 18-point lead in a loss to Indianapolis last week. If not for a win over the lousy New Orleans Saints, you could argue that nothing positive happened for Green Bay over the past month.
That's not the way Super Bowl contenders operate. It's definitely not what was expected from a Packers team that went 15-1 last season and won 19 straight games between 2010 and 2011. Green Bay was supposed to pick up where they left off last year. This was going to be the season during which they made up for all the frustrations that followed their upset loss to the New York Giants in last year's playoffs.
It's an easy trap to follow into when teams as young and dominant as the Packers win a Super Bowl, as they did in 2010. They look so good that it seems likely that they'll just duplicate the same winning formula every season. The problem is that sustaining success in the NFL is a hard enough feat to achieve. Dominating on an annual basis is something that even the most talented teams have a tough time doing.
There are many factors behind the Packers' slow start but the most obvious is that they aren't nearly as multidimensional as they were during that Super Bowl season. Rodgers is still tremendous but this team's success was starting to become way too dependent on his right arm. The running game hadn't offered much. A young defense had been middling at best. As great as Rodgers is -- and he played his second straight game without injured Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings -- the Packers needed more contributions from other parts of their team to compete with the league's heaviest hitters.
They got all that and more on Sunday night. Rodgers and his receivers attacked the Texans with a no-huddle offense that capitalized time and again on Houston's willingness to play man coverage. The defense added three sacks and two interceptions of Houston quarterback Matt Schaub.
"You don't want to be one-dimensional," said Nelson, who finished with nine receptions for 121 yards and three touchdowns. "As long as we keep scoring and the defense keeps stopping [the opponents], we'll be a complete team. That's what we've been striving for."
The person who surely benefited most from Sunday's win was Rodgers. Last year's NFL MVP had become this year's most popular punching bag, with critics incredibly questioning everything from his pocket presence to his treatment of teammates. We all know quarterbacks get too much credit when they win and too much blame when they lose. Still, the scrutiny on Rodgers had reached a level where it defied logic.
He's still the same quarterback who's done plenty of great things for that franchise (and his six touchdown passes tied a team single-game record). The bigger issue is whether Green Bay was doing enough to make his job easier. The irony now is that all that criticism did was create a greater sense of urgency among the Packers.
As Rodgers said, "There's no quit in that locker room. People tried to pull us apart this week but we stayed together."
The Packers will need more of that attitude as they try to use this game as a huge turning point. They play winnable games in the coming weeks against St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona. They still have five division games to play as well, which means significant ground can be gained in that race. There's basically plenty of time for them to put themselves back in the position most expected them to be in when this season began.
The key, of course, is what happened in Reliant Stadium on Sunday. The Packers finally reminded us of what they can be when they are on their game. The question now is whether they can sustain this momentum in consecutive games, especially as key injuries keep mounting.
Judging from their collective vibe in the wake of this victory, that's exactly what they aim to do.