There’s no way of truly knowing. Saturday night’s 24-10, first-round playoff victory over the visiting Minnesota Vikings cannot be used as a gauge.
The Vikings’ season ended 90 minutes before kickoff. That’s when quarterback Christian Ponder became a surprise scratch because of an elbow injury suffered in Week 17 against the Packers.
In retrospect, Ponder throwing left-handed may have proved a better option than his replacement.
Joe Webb became the first NFL quarterback to start a playoff game without having attempted a pass during the regular season. The rust could not have been more evident.
Webb, in his third year out of Alabama-Birmingham, went 3 for 12 in the first half for 22 yards. He didn’t register a completion of more than 10 yards until midway through the third quarter. By that point, Green Bay had opened a 24-3 lead and already could start thinking about next Saturday’s divisional-round road matchup at San Francisco.
“At some point, you would like to complete some passes,” Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said after Webb’s 11-for-30, 180-yard outing.
“There were some times I thought we had some guys open and Joe might get flushed or didn’t have his feet set or might not follow through like he needed. We just couldn’t make some things happen down the field that we needed to make happen.”
This wasn’t a tour de force performance from the Packers (12-5), either. Head coach Mike McCarthy lamented that his team wasn’t able to “knock (Minnesota) out of the park” when the opportunity presented itself like a belt-high fastball. After coasting through most of the second half, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers described his offense as “average.”
The Vikings gladly would have taken that from Webb.
Even an average Joe would have given all-world running back Adrian Peterson a shot to carry Minnesota’s offense as usual. Peterson got off to a great start Saturday, with 31 yards on six carries as the Vikings (10-7) drove for a short Blair Walsh field goal.
Coming off the second-best rushing season in NFL history, Peterson would gain only 17 yards on six more carries for the rest of the half. He never got into a rhythm as the Vikings fell increasingly behind. Peterson still managed 99 yards on 22 attempts, but didn’t rip off any long runs like in two prior meetings against Green Bay. He had gouged the Packers for a combined total of 409 yards in those contests.
“He’s a good running back, and you don’t know where he’s going to take it, so everybody wanted to be disciplined and stay in your gaps,” said Packers end C.J. Wilson, who led Green Bay’s defensive linemen with six tackles. “Don’t try and do somebody else’s job to make a play. Let him come to you. If we stay in our gap, he can’t go nowhere.”
During the four-game December winning streak that fueled Minnesota’s playoff run, Ponder and his ragtag group of wideouts finally started taking advantage of the opportunities created by all the defensive attention Peterson was receiving. Ponder tossed a season-high three touchdown passes without an interception the previous week against Green Bay, providing optimism he was ready for his first career playoff game.
The only time Ponder did anything athletic Saturday at Lambeau Field was during warmups well before kickoff. He tossed a few short passes before heading back inside the locker room.
The Vikings had listed Ponder as questionable on the team’s Friday injury report. While that indicates a “50/50” chance of being able to go, McCarthy admitted the Packers had game-planned expecting Ponder to start like most players given such a designation. The Vikings had prepared for Ponder’s potential absence by giving Webb extensive practice time with the first-team offense.
It wasn’t nearly enough — and Webb knows it.
“There are a lot of plays I would like to have back,” said Webb. “I haven’t touched the field since August, but that’s no excuse.”
Webb, 26, totaled 152 passes his first two years before his zero this season.
Graham Harrell, who is Green Bay’s backup quarterback, could empathize with Webb’s struggles.
“That’s a tough spot, especially coming in the biggest game of the season into a colder atmosphere being on the road in a playoff game,” said Harrell, who fumbled his first career NFL snap earlier this season, against New Orleans.
“He probably hasn’t gotten any work all year with the first team. I thought he did a good job competing. It would help to have reps throughout the year, but that’s just the spot you’re in sometimes.”
Webb’s scrambling and rushing prowess — he entered with a 6.7-yard career average — never hurt the Packers. That was defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ biggest concern when he called an impromptu meeting with his players about Webb once Ponder was declared inactive.
“Joe Webb is fast, but he ain’t Michael Vick,” Wilson said. “We’ve got some guys with speed and discipline. We were ready.”
Webb wasn’t. He badly overthrew several receivers, including one misfire that Packers cornerback Sam Shields intercepted late in the third quarter. Webb looked like a deer in headlights on a rural Wisconsin road when pressured by Green Bay’s pass rush. One desperate attempt to get rid of the football while being tackled by Packers linebacker Erik Walden was almost picked off. Minnesota’s next series ended when Webb was called for intentional grounding on another ill-advised throw.
“With a guy like that, you have to find a way to set your edges and keep him in the pocket,” Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “Don’t let him scramble around and run. He still did that a good amount, but you have to find a way to bottle him up and make him throw the ball over the top. That’s what we pretty much tried to do.”
Webb managed to sack himself when tripping over linebacker Clay Matthews, who was on the ground after being blocked. Matthews registered a legitimate takedown of Webb with a sack-and-strip that he recovered in the third quarter. “We were in his face hitting him a little bit,” Packers outside linebacker Dezman Moses said. “For a quarterback like that, it tends to make him have some happy feet in the pocket. That’s what we wanted to do — just get his feet moving and allow our DBs to make plays on the ball.”
Webb’s failings put too much strain on a Vikings defense that played admirably, but couldn’t force any Packers turnovers. Minnesota then compounded its own shortcomings with self-inflicted mistakes.
On the opening drive of the second half, the Packers were given a first down on a fourth-and-4 when the Vikings were penalized for having 12 men on the field prior to a Mason Crosby field-goal attempt. Rodgers flipped a 9-yard touchdown pass to fullback John Kuhn on the next play, putting the Vikings behind by 17 points. A fumbled punt by Vikings returner Marcus Sherels early in the fourth quarter allowed Green Bay to run more time off the clock.
Green Bay’s defense is well aware that a much tougher challenge looms. 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick is a better thrower and run-pass threat than Webb. San Francisco also has its own quality running back in Frank Gore, who gashed the Packers for 112 yards and one touchdown in a season-opening victory.
But finally keeping Peterson from reaching the century mark — no matter who was at quarterback — is something that Wilson believes will give his unit confidence heading into Candlestick Park.
“There’s no running back like Adrian Peterson,” Wilson said.
And for one night, there was no competency under center when the Vikings needed it most.