DETROIT — It was 17-14 early in the fourth quarter and the Green Bay Packers owned the lead and the ball. The Packers or the Detroit Lions would grab the NFC North title. Both teams’ chances waffled all Sunday night at Ford Field before a pulsating Lions crowd that was hopeful yet hesitant.
And then Aaron Rodgers started messing with the Lions’ heads again.
Messing with Lions fans’ heads, too.
It was that play early in the fourth quarter, the one where Rodgers tossed a 31-yard pass down the left sideline, the one where a receiver named Geronimo giddy-upped and made a twisting catch to the Detroit 44-yard line. Yes, the Packers’ Geronimo Allison’s catch was fresh. But it was Rodgers throw that was the show.
He threw it like he meant it. With zip, yet with touch. It released from his hand as if he were conducting an orchestra with a baton. It was that finishing wave of his hand on that throw.
It was uh-oh.
You could see it — Aaron Rodgers is really starting to feel it.
He is messing with the Lions heads now. He’s about to go off.
Jordy Nelson knew it.
"I’ve been with him nine years now,’’ Nelson, Green Bay’s smooth receiver, said. "I see that all of the time in practice. There are literally times in practice where plays like he is painting a picture. It is incredible. And when he starts to do that in games, well, it’s look out. He is the leader of our team. His will is amazing. He is playing with so much confidence right now.’’
It was born from desperation, a 4-6, lackluster, dead-looking team that Rodgers energized and helped lead to six straight victories. The latest was Sunday against the Lions, 31-24. A 300-yard, four-touchdown-pass performance with artistic strokes by Rodgers. A 14-point Packers fourth-quarter that sealed it. Green Bay (10-6) is the NFC North champion. It goes home now to play the Giants in the playoffs.
Rodgers afterward did what any great quarterback does.
He kept passing.
This time, the wealth, the praise.
"That’s what you have to do sometimes as a leader,’’ Rodgers said of his declaration that the Packers could win the rest of their games when they were 4-6. "You have to exude confidence even in a situation where it seems to the outside world that confidence shouldn’t exist. I believe in myself and my abilities, but I also believe in this team. This wasn’t just a shot in the dark. ’’
No, it was a straight shot into the Lions’ hearts.
"What a great atmosphere here today,’’ Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I thought it was just incredible. This is the loudest I’ve ever heard this place.’’
That’s saying something, because McCarthy has been hearing Lions crowds in Detroit for 11 straight years. It has been even longer than that since Detroit won the NFC North title — they have not won it since 1993.
Green Bay just won its fifth in the last six seasons.
Rodgers is 13-3 lifetime against the Lions. This one stings a little more.
"We’ve just got to get better, there’s no magic to it,’’ Lions head coach Jim Caldwell said as his team dropped its third straight game to fall to a 9-7 record, yet still making the playoffs. Detroit plays at Seattle.
"We just couldn’t answer enough times,’’ Caldwell said about Rodgers’ shots.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for more yards (347) but with less scoring production and an interception. The Lions pass rush was all over Rodgers, but too often he escaped them. The Lions cornerbacks battled the Packers receivers, but too often the Packers receivers won.
It happened after that majestic 31-yard Rodgers pass to Allison. That play led to Rodgers later scrambling for nearly nine seconds before throwing a 10-yard scoring strike to Allison. Lions everywhere around the quarterback and the receiver, but none able to shut it down.
It happened with 2:50 left when Rodgers threw a 9-yard scoring pass to receiver Davante Adams that made it 31-17, a Rodgers pass that finally tamed the Lions’ loud crowd.
"The Lions were sending a big blitz,’’ Adams said. "Aaron saw it right away. It was a run play that he changed. The coverage on me was tight but he put the ball exactly where it needed to be put for me to catch it. My earlier touchdown in the game also came on him changing the play. Aaron is tuned in, dialed in.’’
Ho-hum, says Packers defensive end Julius Peppers.
"I mean, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, the effort and the hard work, the production he has,’’ Peppers said. "We almost get numbed by it. We see it every day in practice then see it in games. It’s special. A player only gets that way in this league when they have supreme confidence.’’
There it is, both Nelson and Peppers pinpointing and saluting the confidence of Rodgers.
It’s almost an arrogance. It’s definitely an art.
Rodgers threw the ball in places against the Lions that seemed impossible. He began to throw it with a twist. With a colorful style. He said this season, these teammates have infused him.
"There’s a different feel to the locker room,’’ Rodgers said. "There’s a hunger that maybe wasn’t there at times our last couple of years. There’s a great group of young guys who brought some really positive energy and belief in each other. The team is a close group.’’
With a quarterback who has 40 touchdown passes this season.
"He is playing at a very high level,’’ said Edgar Bennett, Green Bay’s offensive coordinator. "Anytime you come into an environment like this and do what we just did as a team and him do what he did as a quarterback, that is not common and it’s not easy. We’re going home to play in the playoffs now, and that means a lot. We’ve got a quarterback at his optimum game, and that means a heck of a lot. I call him ‘Yellow Jacket’ all of the time. He knows what I mean.’’
Bennett is talking Hall of Fame and the yellow jacket that comes with it one day for Rodgers.
Rodgers just wants to get back to artistry, to painting another canvass, to another flick of the wrist, a wave of the hand like a wand in his follow through, this time in the playoffs.
Those are marks of his escalating confidence.