MINNEAPOLIS -- For the first time since U.S. Bank Stadium opened in 2016, Aaron Rodgers didn't mind the postgame walk along the sideline to the team bus. With the building largely empty after a 23-10 victory over the Vikings, he stepped out of the dark tunnel and into the bright lights to recognize a vocal group of fans who cheered and called his name from the railings. Then he waved to Green Bay supporters who called out from a field-level suite, chatted with a maintenance worker repairing a pylon at the goal line, and signed a commemorative football for a young boy waiting behind the end zone.
The moment was meant to be relished not only because it was a long time coming -- the Packers and Rodgers had never won in the stadium -- but also because it provided the Packers with their first NFC North title in three years and kept them in the hunt for the conference's No. 1 playoff seed, which they can claim with a win over Detroit and a San Francisco loss at Seattle on Sunday.
"To be back on the top of winning the North after a couple of years of being down feels great," Rodgers said. "It feels great to win in this stadium, where a couple of years ago I was jeered leaving the field after breaking my collarbone."
There was nothing painful about this experience for Rodgers, except a first half in which the Packers (12-3) committed three turnovers and failed to get in the end zone despite two trips into the red zone. It was enough to leave everyone shaking their heads, as Green Bay had committed just nine turnovers all season. But the offense shrugged off the miscues to dominate the second half, getting touchdown runs of 12 and 56 yards from Aaron Jones to turn a one-point deficit into a skeptic-silencing victory. Yes, skeptic-silencing.
While it might sound blasphemous to doubt a team that entered the evening tied for the second-fewest losses in the league, the Packers were not being mentioned in the same breath as conference powers New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle because they lacked a signature victory. In their only conference showdown with the 49ers, they were routed 37-8. And while they did beat the Chiefs, it came when 2018 league MVP Patrick Mahomes was sidelined with a knee injury.
Monday night was the first time they played the role of bully against a quality opponent. Minnesota (10-5) had won eight of 10 and was getting stellar play from quarterback Kirk Cousins. The division title was at stake and a national TV audience was watching. There were questions about how they would perform, particularly in a building that had been so hostile toward them.
"I'm pretty sure people ain't going to sleep on us anymore," defensive lineman Kenny Clark said. "If we ain't answered the questions now ..."
The sentence didn't need finishing. Winning on an evening when they had to overcome so much early adversity made the performance even more impressive than a wire-to-wire rout.
Perhaps first-year coach Matt LeFleur had a premonition when he woke Monday, because his message to the team that morning was about staying together during difficult times. That said, it's doubtful he envisioned the Packers losing a fumble on the third play from scrimmage, throwing an interception on their fourth series and losing another fumble two possessions after that.
Worse, Rodgers was not his usual sharp self. On a pass he normally completes with his eyes shut, he overthrew fullback Danny Vitale on a play-action corner route. He also threw slightly behind Jones on a flat route, which prevented the running back from possibly gaining a first down.
To be clear, it wasn't like that throw or several others were awful. It's just that we've come to expect perfection from Rodgers, who finished 26 of 40 for 216 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He is a victim of his own greatness, having set the bar of expectation so high that it's ridiculous to think it can be reached on every play in every game, even if we tend to believe so.
But that's what Rodgers is facing this year. There has been constant chatter that he is not playing at peak efficiency, which might be a topic of conversation in the media, but finds no traction in the Green Bay locker room.
"I just laugh at it," said wideout Davante Adams, who had 13 receptions for 116 yards. "People make comments. They have to write stuff. People need stuff to read and that's the easy route to go if a guy doesn't play to his full potential at all times. Obviously we're all human, so at the end of the day it's not always going to be perfect. I know he doesn't worry about it and we don't even listen or worry about any of that stuff, either."
The truth is, Rodgers doesn't have to be perfect when his defense is playing as well as the Packers' unit. Monday was the fourth consecutive game and the fifth in the last six outings the Packers have held an opponent to 16 or fewer points. Through three quarters, they had surrendered a total of just 124 yards and limited Kirk Cousins to 90 yards through the air, 28 of which came on a first-quarter touchdown to Stefon Diggs. Incidentally, that score would be the last points they allowed.
Cousins, whose teams are now 0-9 on Monday nights, dating back to his time in Washington, had no answers for Green Bay in part because he could not lean on his running game with both of his top two running backs sidelined with injuries. He was forced to rely on quick throws or check downs while facing constant duress, primarily from linebacker Za'Darius Smith, who had 3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and seven tackles.
It was the addition of Smith, among others, that led Rodgers to believe the Packers had the makings of something special midway through training camp.
"I could tell our defense was different; it just had a different feel to it," Rodgers said. "You could see the tempo and size and ability. I felt pretty good about our chances on defense. I knew the offense was going to be a work in progress, but I felt like with the defense we had, it was going to give us a chance."
Another reason to feel good was the maturation of the running game. Jones and Jamaal Williams have given opponents something else to worry about. Load up to stop the pass and deal with the consequences. Open your mouth too wide, and also deal with the consequences, a lesson Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr was taught after verbally taunting Jones after Jones fumbled to start the game.
According to Jones, Barr followed the turnover by saying: "The lights are too bright for you. Get off the field. You're sorry."
"That definitely got me going," said Jones, who has run for 339 yards and five touchdowns over his last three games.
In an interesting twist, Jones' long score came the play after Barr left the field with an injury. It gave Jones 16 rushing touchdowns this season, three off the franchise record.
In the locker room afterward the Packers hooted and hollered. They posed for group photos while wearing division-champ hats and T-shirts that read: The North is Not Enough.
Based on what we witnessed Monday night, the words could prove to be prophetic.