GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP)Aaron Rodgers and the Packers suddenly are just a win away from an improbable playoff berth.
He has his defense to thank for continuing Green Bay’s reversal of fortune.
Rodgers threw a touchdown pass and ran for a score, and the Packers shut down Kirk Cousins and star receiver Justin Jefferson in a 41-17 blowout of the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
Keisean Nixon scored on a 105-yard kickoff return and Darnell Savage had a 75-yard pick-6 of Cousins – one of four turnovers by the Minnesota QB. The Packers (8-8) will reach the playoffs if they beat the Detroit Lions at home in their regular-season finale.
A fourth straight postseason berth seemed out of the question after a 1-7 stretch dropped the Packers to 4-8, but they haven’t lost since and have benefited from favorable results around the league. Green Bay’s latest bit of good fortune came earlier Sunday when Washington fell 24-10 at home to the Cleveland, putting the Packers in control of their postseason fate.
”I still believe in myself and felt like it just takes one sometimes,” said Rodgers, who went 15 of 24 for 159 yards. ”It’s strange, but when we were sitting at 3-6 and looked at the next three, at the time Tennessee was playing really well, obviously the Cowboys were playing well and Philly was No. 1 in the league.
”I just felt like if we get one of those, we can win the last five, and 9-8 was going to get in. I didn’t really go around saying that because you don’t really want to say, `Hey, if we get just one of these three, you know, we can maybe make the playoffs.’ But in my head, that’s what I was thinking.”
The Packers beat the Cowboys in overtime before losing to Tennessee and Philadelphia. They’ve now won four straight, with their ball-hawking defense a big reason why.
Green Bay held Jefferson, the NFL’s leading receiver, to one catch for 15 yards. Jefferson had nine receptions for 184 yards and two touchdowns in a season-opening 23-7 victory over the Packers.
Savage, Adrian Amos and Rudy Ford each intercepted passes by Cousins, while Kenny Clark recovered a fumble on a strip sack. The Packers converted each of Cousins’ turnovers into touchdowns.
”They say (turnovers) come in bunches, so you’ve just got to capitalize on it,” Savage said. ”I think we’re just going out there, playing hard, trusting each other. A lot of stuff’s falling our way.”
Cousins went 18 of 31 for 205 yards for the NFC North champion Vikings (12-4). His only touchdown pass came in garbage time, a 47-yarder to Jalen Nailor that cut Green Bay’s lead to 41-10.
”I just didn’t play well enough tonight,” Cousins said. ”Just need to play better, that’s the bottom line.”
The Vikings’ Dalvin Cook was held to 27 yards on nine carries.
Rodgers threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to Robert Tonyan and also scored Green Bay’s final touchdown on a 2-yard scramble.
After a blocked punt by Josh Metellus gave Minnesota first-and-goal at the 1 to help the Vikings take an early 3-0 lead, the Packers scored 41 straight points.
That outburst started with the big plays from Nixon and Savage. This marked the first time the Packers scored on an interception return and a kickoff return in the same game since a 31-23 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 30, 1967.
Nixon’s touchdown was the Packers’ first off a kickoff return since Randall Cobb’s franchise-record 108-yarder against New Orleans in 2011. Nixon had a 94-yard kickoff return in a 26-20 Christmas Day victory at Miami, but he left that game with a groin injury that kept him from practicing most of this week.
”Guys had great blocks for me,” Nixon said. ”They opened it up. I feel like it was open sea. I just ran through it. I just knew I had one person to beat, and once I passed the kicker, it was party time.”
Green Bay also got a solid game from veteran kicker Mason Crosby, who went 2 of 2 on field-goal attempts, including a 56-yarder that the crossbar before bouncing through to close the first half.
That kick gave Green Bay a 27-3 halftime lead. The Packers didn’t let up in the second half, and if they can maintain that level next week, they’ll conclude a remarkable turnaround with a playoff appearance.
”We’re going to have a good story to tell, you know what I’m saying, but we’ve got to finish it,” Amos said. ”We finished this week and now we’re 0-0. We’ve been in playoff mode for a while. We’ve got to continue going into this week.”
The Vikings lost two of their starting offensive linemen to injuries in the first quarter. Center Austin Schlottmann suffered a broken fibula and right tackle Brian O’Neill departed with a calf injury. Schlottmann was starting in place of Garrett Bradbury, who missed a fourth straight game with a back injury.
Chris Reed, who hadn’t played an offensive snap all season, took over for Schlottmann at center. Olisaemeka Udoh filled in at right tackle.
The Vikings visit Chicago and the Packers host the Lions next weekend.
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