MINNEAPOLIS — Aaron Rodgers has the Green Bay Packers rolling, even without three of his best receivers.
There’s a powerful running game on his side now, as if Rodgers needed any more help.
Ignoring the injuries around him, Rodgers picked apart what’s left of Minnesota’s depleted defense by throwing two first-half touchdown passes to Jordy Nelson and guiding the Packers to a 44-31 victory Sunday night.
“I think this is really shaping up to be one of Aaron’s best years,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Aaron’s had a lot of challenges Monday through Saturday that don’t show up on the stat sheet, just trying to get on the same page with younger players and trusting the game plan.”
Missing Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jermichael Finley, Rodgers finished 24 for 29 for 285 yards to help the Packers (5-2) stay in first place in the NFC North.
“We expect greatness out of our guys,” Rodgers said.
Christian Ponder’s encore went poorly for the Vikings (1-6), who sent out a different starting quarterback for the third straight week. Adrian Peterson gained a quiet 60 yards on 13 carries, Greg Jennings had just one catch against his old team and the Vikings offense counted only three plays in the third quarter as the Packers pulled away in their final game at the Metrodome, now known as Mall of America Field.
Ponder didn’t turn the ball over, but he was again out of sorts under pressure in the pocket all night. He finished 14 for 21 for 145 yards against a defense missing three starting linebackers to injury and added a late touchdown run. Coach Leslie Frazier said he wasn’t sure yet whether Ponder would keep the job for another game.
The Vikings beat the Packers 37-34 last December to make the playoffs. But they needed 199 yards rushing from Peterson and the best game of Ponder’s career to do it, because Rodgers has rarely found resistance from this defense in purple. In his last eight games against the Vikings, he has 22 touchdowns and only three interceptions while completing roughly three-quarters of his passes. The Packers have won seven of those.
“I wasn’t going to let this team beat us,” Rodgers said, adding: “A lot was on my shoulders.”
Micah Hyde had a punt return for a touchdown for the Packers, who never punted and held the ball for more than two-thirds of the game to counteract Cordarrelle Patterson’s opening 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The Packers have won 15 of their last 16 games against NFC North teams.
“We’ve got a great team, very well-coached,” Rodgers said. “Guys are ready to play. It was loud in here. It was a tough environment, but guys stepped up.”
The Packers scored on their first two possessions, running a total of 31 plays for 160 yards that drained 15 minutes and 48 seconds off the clock. Eddie Lacy finished with 94 yards and a touchdown and James Starks ran for 57 yards and a score.
“Everybody wants a 1,500-yard rusher. I’ve always wanted an 1,100-yard rusher, because I plan on being in the playoffs, so I want him running the same way in January and February as he is in September and October,” McCarthy said.
The way Lacy has been pounding the ball, as the leading NFL rookie rusher, Rodgers hasn’t had to come up with as many clutch throws with his top targets missing. Lacy and Starks took turns trampling an exhausted Vikings defense, with each guy contributing a touchdown on the ground and the Packers reaching a season-high 182 yards rushing.
“When the heck is the last time the Green Bay Packers rushed for 200 yards on somebody?” defensive end Jared Allen said, slightly exaggerating the total. “If that’s not a punch in the gut and a wake-up to people, something needs to be.”
The Packers converted 13 third downs and two fourth downs. The only time they had the ball and didn’t score was the kneel-down at the end of the game.
“These are the guys we have,” Frazier said. “So we’ve got to figure out schematically what we can do with the guys that we have to be better.”
NOTES: The two longest plays in NFL history have happened here: Patterson’s plus a 109-yard return by Antonio Cromartie of a missed field goal for San Diego in 2007. … The Vikings finished 16-15 here against the Packers. … Rodgers and Jennings embraced on the field after the game. Jennings made some critical comments about the quarterback in the offseason but Rodgers said Sunday night: “We had a lot of good memories together.”