MINNEAPOLIS — With most of his usual targets confined to observers’ roles, there was little secret as to whom Aaron Rodgers would look to most Sunday night in the Twin Cities.
But the Minnesota Vikings were the only party shocked by Jordy Nelson’s game-turning, step-up evening on a historic night in the Metrodome.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Rodgers’ characterization of Nelson’s seven-catch, 123-yard, two touchdown night was even more nonchalant. “Jordy was himself.”
Nelson wasn’t taken aback, either, he said. “I can’t do anything else but what I’m supposed to do. I try to run good routes, be assignment-sound and get open.”
The sixth-year pro did that plenty in Green Bay’s 44-31 victory in its final trip to Minnesota’s old digs, which will be razed after a still-plummeting season and replaced by a brand-new, state-of-the-art football cathedral.
Together, Rodgers and Nelson made sure the Packers’ (5-2) last sojourn here was a fruitful one. In the process, they retained sole possession of first place in the NFC North Division with their fourth straight win.
“I’m going to miss it,” Rodgers said with a grin.
Top receiving threats Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley and James Jones all sat out with various injuries, yet Rodgers still torched a beleaguered Vikings defense for 285 yards on 24-of-29 passing. Nelson — Green Bay’s lone starting receiver still standing — reaped the most benefits, bouncing from spot to spot and capitalizing upon mismatches when they arose.
The 6-foot-3, 217-pound wide out did most of his damage from the slot. Tucked in close to the trenches, Nelson separated for a pair of first-half scores that bolstered the Packers’ 24-17 halftime advantage.
But he’s just as dangerous on the outside, McCarthy said.
“I like Jordy everywhere,” McCarthy said. “Jordy just does it right all the time. He can play any (receiver) position. He can run any route.”
Nelson capped Green Bay’s 14-play, 90-yard, game-opening drive with an 11-yard reception on Rodgers’ perfectly-placed corner throw. In the second quarter, the pair exhibited the Packers’ more conventional quick-strike approach when Rodgers hit Nelson on a skinny post and the receiver raced 76 yards to the end zone.
In both instances, Rodgers’ uncanny ability to read and exploit mismatches burned the Packers’ archrival, which fell to 1-6 and stayed stuck at the bottom of the division. The subject of much scorn in Minnesota for his inability to match up with one-on-one with receivers, Josh Robinson blanketed Nelson on his first touchdown reception. The cornerback never turned his head in the end zone, and Rogers placed a perfect strike just past the right ear hole of Robinson’s helmet.
On the second score, linebacker Chad Greenway went with Nelson once the ball was snapped even though the Vikings had an extra defensive back on the field. Nelson’s catch-and-run broke a 10-all tie with 3:38 left in the second quarter, and Green Bay’s offense cruised from there.
The Packers scored on every possession save for a series of kneel downs to end the game, with chants of “Go Pack Go” resounding throughout the Metrodome as disgusted Vikings fans bolted for the exits.
And that’s with little-used receivers Jarrett Boykin (five catches, 89 yards), Myles White (five, 35) filling in for Cobb and Jones.
That, Rodgers said, was surprising.
“I don’t think you can expect that at all,” Rodgers said. “But we expect guys to be prepared and accountable with the routes they run, with the blocks they’re making, and guys did a great job tonight.”
After relying primarily on Rodgers’ arm and consequent big plays through six games, Green Bay balanced its aerial attack with a bruising ground game. A fully-healthy Eddie Lacy carried 29 times for 294 yards, and the Packers dominated time of possession via three scoring pushes that ate at least 7:24 off the clock.
The Packers converted 13 of 18 first-down attempts. The Vikings, by comparison, earned 15 first downs. Total.
Four of Nelson’s catches, including his two touchdowns, came on third down. On Green Bay’s 15-play, 80-yard drive to open the third, he moved the chains twice — an 11-yard haul on third-and-1 and an eight-yard grab on fourth-and-3.
That kept things alive for Lacy’s 1-yard touchdown run that made it 31-17 with 6:50 left in the quarter.
“We try to get in positions to get him singled up, and we like those matchups where we can get him one-on-one, whether that’s inside or outside,” Rodgers said of Nelson. “He’s just such a valuable resource to our team.”
It wasn’t a career day for Nelson; last year, he eclipsed 160 yards receiving against Detroit and twice found the end zone three times. But those performances came with Jones, Cobb and Packer-turned-Viking Greg Jennings around to stretch the field. Not since his Kansas State days did Nelson come into a game as a No. 1 option, until Sunday.
That didn’t change his approach one iota, he said afterward.
“My mindset going into every game is just doing my job,” Nelson said. “If you get the opportunity to make a play, you’ve got to make it across the board.”