As the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions both jogged into their respective halftime locker rooms Sunday afternoon, the playoff picture in the NFC North appeared to be getting one step closer to clarity.
Just 30 minutes of football later and the two second halves had again turned the tables on a division that continues to be as unpredictable as any in the NFL.
While the division-leading Lions let a 14-0 lead over the Philadelphia Eagles snowball into a 34-20 defeat, the Packers put the freeze on a 21-10 first-half deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 22-21. Detroit fell to 7-6 instead of 8-5. And Green Bay went from 5-7-1 and season over to 6-6-1 and game on in the NFC North.
The Packers, who with every week inch closer to Aaron Rodgers' return, now find themselves just a half-game back in the most volatile division in football.
"Good to win, it's been awhile," Mike McCarthy said during his post game press conference. "This was an excellent character win for our football team, and we definitely needed it."
At the halftime break, the Packers looked more like a team headed for its sixth-straight game without a win. And the players and staff were made well aware of it.
As the two teams headed for the locker room, a subsection of fans—sitting in temperatures that dipped below zero wind chill—filled the chilly air inside Lambeau Field with a chorus of boos. It was difficult to blame them for voicing their displeasure.
After scoring the game's only first-quarter points on an Eddie Lacy touchdown, the Packers sat back and watched the Falcons go on a 21-3 run during the second quarter. Two Green Bay turnovers led to Atlanta touchdowns, including a fluky and unfortunate 71-yard interception return for a touchdown with less than a half minute left in the first half.
On the pick-six, Matt Flynn's errant dump off pass bounced off the foot of a Falcons defender and into the waiting arms of Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who then rumbled down the sidelines for the most unlikely of touchdowns.
Instead of the Packers cutting into Atlanta's lead or taking over control for themselves before the half, Green Bay found itself down 11 points to the three-win, dome-comfortable Falcons. It was the kind of play that could have summed up the Packers' luck since losing Rodgers over a month ago.
Something changed once the Packers emerged from the locker room for the second half. Finally, for the first time in six games, the hangover from losing Rodgers appeared to subside.
Green Bay dominated the last 30 minutes, scoring the game's final 12 points—including a go-ahead touchdown pass from Matt Flynn to Andrew Quarless—to send the cold, downtrodden Falcons back to a warm, snow-less Atlanta with their 10th loss of a lost season.
The always even-keeled McCarthy shied away from claiming any rah-rah speech at the half made the difference. But it could have been the boos that re-focused his club.
"I told them, it's lonely being the warrior sometimes," McCarthy said.
Eventually, it was the Packers defense that really stepped to the plate.
Atlanta rushed for just 19 yards on 10 carries in the second half, despite Green Bay coming into Sunday's contest as the league's second worst run defense since Week 9. Overall, the Falcons managed zero points and just 131 total yards over the game's final 30 minutes.
Green Bay set the tone during the second half's first three defensive possessions. While the Falcons went three-and-out and lost a fumble to open the second half, the Packers overcame a quick three-play clunker of their own to march 58 and 68 yards for two Mason Crosby field goals.
On Green Bay's fourth possession, which came after Atlanta's lost fumble, Flynn found Quarless in the corner of the North end zone for a quick score that gave the Packers a one-point advantage.
|Flipping on the Switch: Packers in First and Second Half|
|1st Half||2nd Half|
|ATL Rushing Yards||64||19|
|GB Rushing Yards||46||66|
Try as they may, the Falcons were unable to make up the smallest of deficits.
Matt Bryant came up short on a 52-yard field goal, Tony Gonzalez dropped a fourth-down opportunity in Green Bay territory and Jarrett Bush closed the deal by intercepting Matt Ryan in the waning seconds.
For the first time since Rodgers went down, the Packers defense had played a leading role in a winning performance.
In fact, it was Green Bay's first victory since beating the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 27.
“We know we’re a good team," quarterback Matt Flynn said, via Ty Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "We know we can play with anybody in the NFL. We have talented guys. We have guys who care and leave it all out there.”
Flynn called Sunday's 22-21 triumph a "complete team win."
Meanwhile, the Lions took another stumble despite the best efforts from a former Packer.
Jeremy Ross, cut by the Packers in September, gave the Lions a 14-0 advantage early in the second half with a punt return for a touchdown and then briefly shifted momentum back Detroit's way with a kick return for a score after Philadelphia had tied the game at 14.
The 14-0 and 20-14 leads couldn't hold.
Once the heaviest snow fall in recent football memory subsided, the Eagles went on to score 34 second-half points against a Lions defense that uncharacteristically couldn't stop the run. The game ended as nothing less than a collapse from Detroit, especially following a messy first half that was controlled by the Lions.
Detroit allowed a season-high 299 rushing yards.
"The first half we stopped the inside run and forced them to go sideways," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said, via ESPN. "In the second half, we allowed them to run inside and that was the difference."
Now, the final three games should get even more interesting for the NFC North.
There is no guarantee that Rodgers will return by Week 15 when the Packers travel to Dallas to take on the Cowboys, and the Lions welcome the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens to Detroit. But Rodgers has been getting closer and closer to returning, and another week of healing could provide the strength needed in the collarbone for the Packers medical staff to finally clear him.
A team with Rodgers at the helm could very easily finish 9-6-1. If that scenario played out in Green Bay, the Lions would then have to win all three of their games to finish at 10-6. A 9-7 record would be trumped by 9-6-1.
And we haven't even mentioned the Chicago Bears, who play Dallas on Monday night and currently sit at 6-6.
What a wild year in the NFC North.
All four teams, including the three-win Vikings, could be considered disappointments. But seemingly every week has included a dramatic turn, and even the Vikings, who went back-and-forth with the Ravens during the final minute and change Sunday, are providing unforgettable finishes.
At the top, the Lions, Packers and Bears figure to provide can't-miss theatrics over the final three weeks. And if this division sticks to this season's capricious script, it will almost certainly need Week 17—when the Packers visit Chicago, mind you—to find a champion.
The results of another wild Sunday ensured that the Packers will play a part in that gauntlet of a finish. At 6-6-1, Green Bay sits just a half-game back of Detroit.
That certainly looked like an unlikely scenario 30 minutes into Week 14. But that's just how this season is going in the rowdy, unpredictable and erratic NFC North.