The mood in the Green Bay Packers locker room late Sunday afternoon was part somber, part resolute, with some Stuart Smalley-like affirmations mixed in.
“I have faith in our team,” offensive guard Lane Taylor said.
Good luck convincing others to feel likewise.
The Packers tried to wear a brave face on a franchise-shaking day, but human nature knows better. Losing a player of Aaron Rodgers’ ability and stature can’t be brushed off like lint on a winter coat.
The NFC North — and the NFC as a conference — got turned upside down as Rodgers crashed to the turf on his right shoulder on a hit by Anthony Barr early in the first quarter of a 23-10 Vikings win at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone, possibly ending his season, thus downgrading the Packers from favorites to reach the Super Bowl to a team that now features an inexperienced quarterback and a defense decimated by injuries.
A handful of Green Bay’s players interviewed said they didn’t see Barr’s hit, or replays of it, so nobody questioned whether he should have penalized. The opinion here is that Barr’s hit wasn’t egregious or dirty. It was just unfortunate that Rodgers was injured.
Rodgers yelled angrily in the direction of the Vikings huddle as he walked off the field. Packers coach Mike McCarthy was diplomatic when asked about it afterward.
“I did not see the hit, I did not see a replay of the hit,” he said. “I really don’t have an understanding of the hit. I know the ball was thrown and something happened after the throw.”
The effect on the Packers’ psyche was like air rushing from a balloon. Rodgers is a uniquely talented quarterback in the NFL, and he hasn’t missed a game since the 2013 season. The organization’s charmed life at that position came to screeching halt.
“It’s devastating, no question about it,” receiver Randall Cobb said.
“He’s the heartbeat of this team,” receiver Davante Adams said.
“We all understand the magnitude of what Aaron means to our football team,” McCarthy said.
Receiver Jordy Nelson picked one word to describe Rodgers’ impact.
“Everything,” he said.
One can imagine the lump in their throats when Rodgers’ replacement, Brett Hundley, rifled his first pass attempt off the shoulder of Vikings cornerback Mackensie Alexander, causing the ball to carom into the arms of Xavier Rhodes for an interception.
Hundley had a couple of nice moments, but he basically had no chance to shine considering the circumstances. With no warning, he got thrown against a top-tier defense that smelled blood. The Packers also lost three starting linemen to injuries during the game, and their running game was nonexistent.
Hundley passed for only 157 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. He was sacked four times, hit nine other times and ran for his life all game.
A season-ending injury to Rodgers would be seismic under any circumstance, but unlike the Vikings, the Packers can’t rely on their defense to bail them out.
Green Bay’s defense already was vulnerable, and now it’s stockpiling injuries. Three starters in the secondary missed Sunday’s game because of injuries. Third-team cornerback Lenzy Pipkins left briefly in the second half after being shaken up. Their injury report is thicker than a dictionary.
“Tough, tough day,” McCarthy said.
Weird day, too. Rodgers’ injury made the game feel out of reach, even when the score was close. The only way the Vikings were going to lose was if they coughed up turnovers, which they did twice. But they never appeared in danger.
The door suddenly has swung wide open in the NFC. The Packers defense was suspect enough to give pause before writing their name in ink when picking Super Bowl teams. But as long as they had Rodgers, they were on the short list of favorites. Now they’re picking up the pieces.
“He’s the best player in the league,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “To see him on the ground for an extended period of time is not good. But we have a job to do.”
A job that just became infinitely more difficult.