GREEN BAY — The knowing smile that creased Aaron Rodgers’ bearded mug Sunday night said it all. There was nothing ugly about what he and the Green Bay Packers had just accomplished.
Six weeks ago, the Packers' two-time NFL MVP quarterback was growing tired of the team’s victories being viewed as not having enough style points. That’s when he uttered the phrase that might rank up there with 2014’s “R-E-L-A-X” and 2016’s “run the table.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” he’d said that afternoon, “winning ugly all the way to the Super Bowl.”
The 36-year-old Rodgers and the Packers are now one victory away from that Super Bowl LIV berth, thanks to a 28-23 victory over the never-give-up Seattle Seahawks in an NFC Divisional playoff game Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
And unlike so many of their 13 victories earlier in the year, this one truly was a work of art.
Rodgers was masterful, completing 16 of 27 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and two sacks (113.7 rating, his fourth-highest of the season).
Wide receiver Davante Adams was field-tilting, catching eight passes for a franchise single-game record 160 yards and two touchdowns — with every one of his catches going for a first down, including a clutch 32-yarder on a gorgeous rainbow throw from Rodgers on third-and-8 with 2 minutes, 19 seconds to play in the game.
That catch, plus Rodgers’ 9-yard strike to tight end Jimmy Graham on the play immediately following the 2-minute warning, allowed the Packers to run out the clock on the pesky Seahawks. Graham, too, came through after an up-and-down season, catching three passes for 49 yards, including a 13-yarder to set up the Packers’ first touchdown of the night and a 27-yarder that set up the 40-yard Rodgers-to-Adams touchdown strike midway through the third quarter that proved to be the difference in the game.
And the defense, which was run ragged by quarterback Russell Wilson and the undermanned Seahawks, came up with the crucial plays when it needed to, with Za’Darius and Preston Smith delivering as they have all season — four combined sacks, including Preston’s takedown of Wilson for a 6-yard loss with 2:32 to play on what ended up being the Seahawks’ final possession.
“We have had a lot of ugly wins this year,” Rodgers acknowledged. “But in those moments, we’ve come up with plays.
“It’s a special feeling. That’s kind of what we talked about in the huddle before the last drive. These are the moments that you work for and you think about in the offseason — the chance to put a game away. And like I’ve said most of the year, as you guys have talked about the aesthetics of our wins, it doesn’t have to be pretty.
“But what we’ve done is close out games the right way. Our defense, although they gave up a few scoring drives in the second half, a big stop there. We (as an offense) put together the drive that closed the game out. It’s a good feeling.”
The Packers (14-3) will try to ride that feeling all the way to their first Super Bowl berth since the 2010 team won Super Bowl XLV, in Rodgers’ third year as a starter. To get there, though, they’ll have to beat the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.
The 49ers, who beat the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday to advance, demolished the Packers by a 37-8 score on Nov. 28 at Levi’s Stadium.
“I think there’s a lot to learn (from that game),” first-year head coach Matt LaFleur said. “That’s a really good football team. And we know we are going to have to be at our absolute best in order to compete with them. I think unfortunately, last time, for whatever reason, we weren’t.”
The Packers took the opening kickoff and set the tone for the game on their opening drive, with running back Aaron Jones exploding off left tackle for 23 yards on the first offensive snap. Graham’s catch on third-and-8 from the Seattle 36-yard line kept the drive alive, and after absorbing a 4-yard sack to set up third-and-7 from Seattle’s 20-yard line, Rodgers hit Adams along the left sideline for a 7-0 lead.
Jones’ 1-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, set up by Adams’ 11-, 18-, and 15-yard catches and an 18-yard pass interference penalty he drew on the Seahawks, pushed the lead to 14-3 and made it appear that the Packers might have an easy road to the NFC Championship Game.
Not so, of course. Even after Jones had another 1-yard touchdown run to push the lead to 21-3 at halftime, the Packers knew from experience — even players who didn’t play in the 2014 NFC Championship Game in Seattle — that Wilson would not go away.
Sure enough, after Adams’ second touchdown pushed the Packers’ lead to 28-10, Wilson led scoring drives of 84 and 79 yards, the second one ending in a 1-yard Marshawn Lynch touchdown run.
While blitzing cornerback Jaire Alexander’s sack of Wilson on the 2-point conversion with 9:33 left in the game ensured that the Seahawks wouldn’t be able to tie the game and force overtime with a field goal, the Packers still had to hold on for dear life against the elusive Wilson, who finished the game having completed 21 of 31 passes for 277 yards and one touchdown (106.5 rating) while running seven times for 64 yards to lead the Seahawks’ depleted ground game.
But the Packers defense stopped him on Seattle’s final drive with Preston Smith’s sack forcing a punt, and Rodgers, Adams, Graham and LaFleur made sure Seattle never got another chance. After Graham’s catch, Rodgers knelt out the final 1:48.
“All I can say is that was pretty indicative of our entire season right there, with another game going right down to the wire,” said LaFleur, whose team is now 9-1 this year in game decided by one score (eight points or fewer). “I’m so proud of our guys and the way they battle and play for each other. They’re a resilient group. It wasn’t always pretty at times, but it was great that at the end of the game, we made plays when we had to.
“Our defense was able to get that sack on Russell, and then there’s no better way to close out a football game than in a 4-minute mode where you have to convert a couple third downs. I’m happy for all our guys. It took everybody’s best effort.”
Photos: Green Bay Packers fend off Seattle Seahawks to earn trip to NFC title game