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Peaking at the right time: Packers’ playoff bid no longer farfetched

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Aaron Rodgers’ still got it. The Packers defense might be peaking at the right time. And Green Bay is knocking on the door of the postseason – a feeling that felt farfetched and ludicrous earlier this season.

Rodgers threw a touchdown and led three scoring drives in the second half, while the Packers defense intercepted Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa three times in the fourth quarter to help Green Bay beat Miami 26-20 on Christmas Day.

Don’t look now, but the Packers have two games left – including their season finale against the Detroit Lions – to get into the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC. And that’s a Christmas Miracle onto itself after Green Bay’s 4-8 start this season.

“What are we, 7-8? I’d like to be 10-5 or 11-4,” Rodgers said with a smile after the game. “But considering where we were a few weeks ago, a lot has happened in our favor. All the games that needed to go a certain way, went a certain way. Now, there’s obviously much left.

“We played meaningful games in December and we won all three of those,” Rodgers added. “Now, we’re playing meaningful games in January and we have to win those.”

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Yes, the Packers have won three in a row, beating the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams and Dolphins.

They have two games left, both in Lambeau Field, against the 12-3 Minnesota Vikings and 7-8 Lions – two NFC North rivals who beat them earlier this season – to get back into the playoffs.

A season that fell flat due to expectation may be on the verge of heating up at the right time and sneaking into the postseason.

And that’s got to be an incredible feeling for Rodgers and the Packers, knowing they have plenty to play for after their disappointing start this season.

“Man, that was a resilient win by our team,” Packers coach Matt LeFleur said. I’m proud of our guys in that locker room, sticking together, no flinch.”

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One of Rodgers’ throws Saturday was a gift to the purest of football fans, who love to see artists like him performance on their canvas. And it was a throw he says he’s never made before, on a play design he doesn’t even favor.

Rodgers escaped the grasp of Dolphins linebacker Elandon Roberts, who sacked him on the first drive of the game. He took three steps to his left, where Dolphins outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel had his arms raise to block his view. But Rodgers didn’t let him.

Rodgers winded up, using a sidearm angle to throw it deep down the left side where 38-year-old tight end Mercedes Lewis – affectionally known Big Dog – secured the 31-yard reception and rolled inside the 5-yard line.  

“I saw Big Dog heading down the sidelines, thought I laid one up for him, and he made a nice play,” Rodgers said.

“I can’t say that was a super confident throw. I was just hoping Big Dog would see it and it was somewhere in the vicinity where we’d catch a catch or a PI, but we didn’t get any PI calls today.”

Two plays later, running back A.J. Dillon punched his way in with a 1-yard touchdown to help the Packers tie the game at 20 on their first drive of the third quarter.

It was the momentum boost they needed after defensive end Jarran Reed forced a fumble on Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert, that led to a field goal and 20-13 score at halftime.

And the perfect way to rebound after the Dolphins used two splash plays – an 84-yard touchdown by Jaylen Waddle and a 52-yard completion to Tyreek Hill that led to a touchdown – to mount a 20-10 lead early.

“It was very big,” Packers running back Aaron Jones said of the sequence that saw Green Bay tie the game.

“We like to call that double dipping. If we could’ve got the touchdown, we wanted the touchdown. But we got points on the board, and it really changed the flow of the game of how it was going.”

Rodgers and Tagovailoa traded interceptions as the fourth quarter begin. Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander, playing in zone coverage, surprised Tagovailoa — who overthrew Tyreek Hill — as the football landed in his hands.

“I almost was like ‘I can’t believe it’s going over his head right now,’” Alexander said of the play. “It was too good to be true.”

Rodgers and the Packers were hampered most of the day by the Dolphins defense, who forced two field goals on drives that Green Bay started inside the red zone.

Green Bay capitalized with a 28-yard field goal to take a 23-20 lead with 11:45 remaining after Alexander’s interception.

And the floodgates opened defensively.

On the Dolphins’ next two drives, Tagovailoa was intercepted two more times, first by linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and lastly by cornerback Rasul Douglas.

“It always feels good when the defense comes together and make big plays like that,” Alexander said. “All it takes is one play to come together, and we kept it going from there.”

Entering the Dolphins game in one of those classic “need a lot of help” scenarios from others, the Packers received a Christmas gift of the ages for their playoff hopes.

The Giants lost to the Vikings. The Washington Commanders lost to the 49ers in San Francisco. The Seattle Seahawks fell to the Kansas City Chiefs. And the Lions got ran over by the Carolina Panthers.

The Packers needed a win to gain ground for the final wildcard playoff spot in the NFC playoff mix. And they got it.

The Vikings have played some of the most volatile football for a team with one of the best records in the league, while the surging Lions are on the brink of the postseason just like Green Bay is.  

With the way all three teams have played, Green Bay’s chance is as good as any team to reach the postseason.

“We like our position,” said Jones, who is nursing a left ankle injury. “But before you look past or look forward to anything, you have to handle what’s in front of you.”

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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