The closest thing the NFL has to Bedford Falls, N.Y. — the idyllic town made famous in Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” — might be Green Bay, Wis., where the quarterbacking pursuits of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers over the past quarter-century have ushered the football hamlet into a quarter-century of unprecedented prosperity.
Favre’s wizardry brought the Packers back from the brink of obscurity, delivered the team’s first championship in 29 years in 1997 and helped pave the way for the taxpayer-funded $295 million expansion of Lambeau Field in 2003.
Rodgers, his immediate successor, delivered another Lombardi Trophy in 2011, followed shortly thereafter by a two-phase expansion that modernized player facilities, added two new scoreboards and pushed Lambeau’s capacity to 81,441 — the fifth-largest stadium in the NFL. The Packers used the financial windfall from their on-field success to redevelop the area west of the stadium; the first phase of the “Titletown District” includes a high-end hotel, brewery and sports medicine clinic.
Since the events of Oct. 15, though, Green Bay has felt more like Pottersville for Packers fans than Bedford Falls.
There might not be a play that’s changed the course of the NFC playoff picture more than the first-quarter hit Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr administered to Rodgers on Oct. 15 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The play, on which Rodgers put his right hand out to brace his fall as Barr drove him to the turf, left the quarterback with a broken collarbone, forced him to injured reserve and initiated a stretch of five Green Bay losses in six games.
The Packers walked into U.S. Bank Stadium in October with a 4-1 record and the No. 2 spot in the NFC. The Vikings’ victory that day was the second of an eight-game winning streak; they’ve clinched the NFC North at 11-3, and are currently in possession of the No. 2 spot in the conference.
The meeting between the two teams at Lambeau Field on Saturday night will be the Packers’ first home game since Dec. 28, 2008, to be played after they had been eliminated from playoff contention. The only one of the Packers’ 37 draft picks on the 2017 roster who was with the team at that time? Rodgers.
“Every week, there’s a state-of-the-union-type address to the team,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “You tell them exactly where we are as a team, the things we need to focus on from the prior game and the plan for the next contest. It’s clearly addressed in the first team meeting. It’s disappointing. It’s a standard that’s unacceptable here. But we’re playing for something different Saturday night, and I expect our team to go out there and win the game.”
Tickets for the game — to be played not even a day and a half before Christmas in single-digit temperatures — are priced as low as $62, roughly the face value of a ticket for a preseason game. Vikings fans could have as easy a time getting their hands on seats for Saturday’s game as they’ve had at Lambeau Field in years, while Barr expects the Packers fans who do attend the game to let him know how they feel about his hit.
Barr took to social media to share his side of the story on Oct. 28, after Rodgers went on Conan O’Brien’s show and accused the linebacker of raising his middle finger and making a lewd gesture after the hit. Barr acknowledged he shot back at Rodgers but said the quarterback started it with “all kinds of profanities.”
Asked on Thursday if he was surprised about the level of vitriol he’s seen from Packers fans on social media since the hit, Barr said: “Uh, no. Not really. It’s Aaron Rodgers. He’s the face of the NFL. It’s going to happen.”
Rodgers is also the lifeblood of a Packers team that’s about to watch the playoffs at home for the first time in nine years. The Vikings, meanwhile, have a chance to clinch a first-round bye with a win on Saturday night and a Panthers loss on Sunday.
It’s tempting to think about what the stakes might have been on Saturday night if Rodgers had stayed healthy all season. The Packers’ losses following the quarterback’s injury included:
• A defeat against the New Orleans Saints in which Brett Hundley threw for 87 yards.
• A nondescript game by Hundley in the Packers’ second loss to the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field since 1991.
• A three-interception game by Hundley in a home shutout loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
• A last-second loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which confusion reigned on the Packers’ two-minute drill, and Chris Boswell kicked a 53-yard field goal as time expired.
Had Rodgers been the Packers’ quarterback that entire time, it’s possible Green Bay would have turned two or three of those losses into victories, making Saturday night’s game the NFC North showdown that NBC undoubtedly hoped it would be.
Instead, the Packers are seeing how the other half lives at quarterback, while the Vikings are steaming toward a first-round bye and hoping to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
A loss to the Packers back in October would have put the Vikings two games behind Green Bay in the NFC North, with a pair of division losses. Instead, the victory helped fuel their run toward their second division title in three years, and will make for perhaps the most listless opponent they’ve seen at Lambeau Field since the Packers’ 4-12 season in 2005.
It figures to be a surreal scene. And Barr’s hit on Rodgers helped make it a reality.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org