HOUSTON -- It had not been an easy week for Aaron Rodgers. Even if the Green Bay Packers quarterback tries his hardest to ignore the criticism or the praise, his friends tell him what's being said, and in the rare moments he flips on a TV, he sees it in front of his eyes.
Entering Sunday, the high-powered Packers were under .500, reeling on offense, and yes, the golden right arm of the reigning MVP had missed more than his share of open targets. The din of harsh reality was loud.
In front of this backdrop, during a quiet, tension-filled pregame moment, Rodgers addressed his team before they took the Reliant Stadium field against the undefeated Houston Texans on national TV. The message was short and instructive.
"When he talked to us, he told us, 'Just follow behind me,' " Green Bay receiver James Jones recalled. "Being around people for a long time, you know when they're ready. He came in with a different look in his eye."
Rodgers and the Packers left Houston with a resounding 42-24 win in a stadium that was nearly empty with 12 minutes left in the one-sided game. The Texans faithful among the record crowd of 71,702 had gone home, leaving the Cheeseheads to chant "Go Pack Go!" as loud as could be.
And it all happened because Rodgers came to play. Without star receiver Greg Jennings, without starting running back Cedric Benson, all Rodgers did was throw six touchdown passes for the first time since Butte College took down Shasta College when Rodgers was plying his trade at community college in 2002.
It's like Rodgers took all the criticism of his early-season performance -- and that of an offense that entered the game ranked 21st -- and fired it back at those opining on his play. When asked in a postgame interview what he had to say to his critics, Rodgers was only half-joking when he responded, "Shhhhhh."
"I feel like I've always played with a chip on my shoulder," said Rodgers, who completed 24 of 37 passes for 338 yards against what had been the NFL's third-ranked defense. "It helps when people give me a reason to have that chip."
Now sitting at 3-3 in an NFC North that also features the 4-1 Chicago Bears and 4-2 Minnesota Vikings, the Packers have work to do. As Rodgers noted, "With the way Chicago is playing, you can't get too far behind them." A loss, to be sure, would have hurt.
And so, coming in, on the heels of blowing a 21-3 lead against the Indianapolis Colts last week, the doubters were out in full force. Not that anyone blamed them.
"A lot of the criticism we were taking was deserved," guard T.J. Lang said. "We weren't playing very well on offense the first five games."
Added safety Charles Woodson, "The criticism, it's warranted. We played some bad football in stretches."
Not on Sunday night. Instead, against the well-rounded Texans came a well-rounded performance. Star runner Arian Foster was held to 29 yards on 17 carries. Quarterback Matt Schaub was picked off twice. And while Watt turned in his usual two sacks, the rest of the defensive front was quiet. And Wade Phillips' entire unit seemed out of sorts without defensive captain Brian Cushing.
Meanwhile, little-known Green Bay runner Alex Green had 65 yards rushing. Sticky-fingered receiver Jordy Nelson had 121 yards on nine receptions with three touchdowns. Jones had two scoring catches, and even reserve tight end Tom Crabtree logged a long touchdown.
Rodgers' 21-yard dart to Nelson, who beat cornerback Alan Ball, made it 21-7 in the second quarter, and the rout was on. And unlike last week, when Indianapolis came roaring back with little resistance, the Packers didn't take their foot off the pedal. Crabtree's 48-yarder that split the Houston secondary put it out of reach.
"We were able to get on top of a team and stay on top of a team," Woodson said. "And that's important for us."
Coach Mike McCarthy is not a man to be drawn into the distractions of the outside world. Asked about a difficult week, he mentioned that it was that way according to the media, not his team. But it had filtered down. They knew. How could they not?
And so, Rodgers spoke pregame, reiterating a message he had delivered in the media earlier in the week. It had the desired effect to his wide-eyed teammates.
"He's the leader of our offense; how he goes, we go," Packers center Jeff Saturday said. "When you play as well as he did (Sunday), you just keep up with him. Whatever he wants to do, you know he's feeling it. ... When you get a guy who is telling you, 'Hey, ride on my shoulders, I'm going to carry this thing, I'm going to do what I can do to make this a game to remember,' you just get in line and ride his shoulders."
And what a ride it was, with Rodgers taking advantage of every opportunity. When Texan DeVier Posey's penalty on a punt kept the Packers on the field early, Rodgers answered by finding Nelson for a majestic score from 41 yards out. When two penalties continued a third-quarter drive, Rodgers hit Nelson to make it 28-10.
From there, it was cruise control for the suddenly machine-like Packers. The performance from Rodgers was exactly what he said would happen before the game's first snap.
"A-Rod is one of the best in this game," Woodson said. "When he's on top of his game, it's natural that everybody's going to follow. But all it tells you is that you have a guy that cares about the product and his performance and cares about what he puts out on the field. He hasn't felt like he's put it all together yet this season. I think he was taking it upon himself to go out there and play the way Aaron Rodgers plays football."
What else is going on? Here is a rundown:
Did the Cowboys find their way, even in a loss?
It's easy to look at the Dallas Cowboys' 31-29 loss to the Baltimore Ravens and find the flaws. They were everywhere, starting with the 13 penalties that always seemed to come at the worst possible time, continuing with receiver Dez Bryant's crucial drop on the late two-point conversion and ending with the time management issues before Dan Bailey's missed field goal.
Yes, a loss is a loss. But I can't help but think the Cowboys found an identity on offense. They found themselves. When they weren't shooting themselves in the foot with false starts and holds, they were pounding it on the Ravens' defense. First, it was starter DeMarco Murray with 14 carries for 93 yards. He was injured, and then it was backup Felix Jones scampering for 92 yards on 18 carries. After Jones was nicked up, backups Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar combined for 42 yards on 10 carries. That means the system is strong enough to handle interchangeable parts and thrive.
All against a formerly stout Ravens defense that is as in-your-face as it comes. The Cowboys gashed them for 5.4 yards per rush, helping quarterback Tony Romo find efficiency in the passing game. It was no surprise Romo was sacked just once, because a defensive front can't come after a quarterback when it is getting run on. The result was an offense that moved the ball at will in a hectic environment.
No, it won't count for anything in the standings, and no one feels good about it. But there is no shame in losing to a one-loss team on the road on a missed field goal.
Things might be looking up for the Cowboys, even in the dark clouds of a loss.
Falcons are ... real?
I'm having a difficult time feeling the optimism for the Atlanta Falcons, even with their gaudy undefeated record. They did win a slop-fest, thanks to a pick-six by cornerback Asante Samuel and a long, late field goal by kicker Matt Bryant. But the victory came against the hapless and wounded Oakland Raiders, who had traveled across the country for this contest.
Atlanta's flaws stand out more than ever. That explosive passing game was held down. Matt Ryan never found his groove, with three interceptions and an underwhelming 249 yards passing. Most jarring is an issue that seems to have no cure. Michael Turner did not burn it up, gaining just 33 yards on 11 carries, and fullback Jason Snelling was stuffed on third-and-goal from the 1 in the third quarter.
Throwing it all over the place is great, and the Falcons do have two dynamic receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones. But when the games tighten up and the calendar turns -- and the intensity/physicality ramps up -- will they be able to move the chains well enough?
Even with their 6-0 record, I fear the Falcons will end up in the same exact spot as last year: In the playoffs with an offense that suddenly doesn't work. There is time to fix it, and in my opinion, they must.
The Matt Flynn movement goes down in flames
While a rookie quarterback learns on the job, Matt Flynn waits. The Seahawks' big-ticket free agent from this offseason has yet to take a regular-season snap, even as Russell Wilson wades his way into deep NFL waters.
Wilson, the third-rounder from Wisconsin, hasn't always been efficient -- as evidenced by his six interceptions -- and it seems the offense has some training wheels for him.
Give Flynn a chance, right? Well ...
Wilson gives the Seahawks a chance in every game. No matter the circumstances.
How can you bench him when he keeps making game-winning plays? That 46-yard bomb in the final moments against the New England Patriots is the perfect example. He saw Sidney Rice behind two defenders, could easily have played it safe, but didn't. The result was another heart-pounding win for the Seahawks. Seattle is sacrificing efficiency for playmaking, and it's hard to argue. Oh, and did we mention they pulled within six on a fourth-down strike to Braylon Edwards earlier in the quarter?
Wilson isn't perfect, but he might be perfect for this team. It seems New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees wasn't being hyperbolic when he told me this week, "I've been extremely impressed with him. I know he's a young quarterback and he's on the learning curve just like every young quarterback who comes into this league. I've been extremely impressed with some of the things he's done and I think he has a bright, bright future."
Some rapid-fire takes:
» It's stunning to see age affect a defense so rapidly, but it looks like that's happened with the Ravens. The slimmed-down Ray Lewis isn't the run-stuffer he was, and now he might be gone for the season. More shocking was to see defensive tackle Haloti Ngata get pushed around. This is becoming an offense-based team more and more every week.
» Oh, Raiders coach Dennis Allen ... Why? Why? Why? Why? Icing the kicker doesn't work. There's no data to show that it does, and even if there was, it's a ridiculous concept. But I'll bet Falcons kicker Matt Bryant is pleased you disagree. His second attempt to win the game from 55 yards out came courtesy of an Allen failed icing. Even Smirnoff Ice is cooler than this lame technique.
» The New York Giants went to San Francisco and dismantled the 49ers, with Niners QB Alex Smith struggling to play from behind. That just thrust the G-Men into consideration for NFL supremacy. A year hasn't changed them.
» You can tell Robert Griffin III to be safe, to not run too much, to protect himself. All valid requests, as he has a bright future to care for. However, do not tell him not to run. Did you see that 76-yarder he busted off to seal it for the Washington Redskins against the Minnesota Vikings? Really want to bottle that up?
» Speaking of the Vikings, quarterback Christian Ponder continues to impress. He faced a major test Sunday after throwing a pick-six that put the Vikes in a 19-point hole late. All Ponder did was lead two efficient scoring drives. Following the pick? He was merely 10 of 14 for 108 yards and two touchdown passes. Tough to imagine a better first half from the second-year pro.
» Great pregame moment on the field reporting before the Packers-Texans nightcap. During my live hit on NFL Network, a flying football hit me in the face! Craziest thing that's happened to me on TV so far. Now I know how Marcia Brady feels. Man, someone has remarkable aim. And to think, my face lived to tell the story.
» Say what you want about the Seattle Seahawks, but they are likely winning some fans around the NFL. Defensive back Richard Sherman is, at least. After picking off a pass against Tom Brady, Sherman taunted him via Twitter. Notably, Sherman tweeted, "(Brady) told me and Earl (Thomas) to see him after they win. ... I found him after. ..." And underneath was a picture of Sherman yapping at Brady postgame with the caption, "U MAD BRO?" Hey, when you win, you can say whatever you want. Might as well cash in.
» Looks like the Philadelphia Eagles' early luck has run out. A late lead goes away in an overtime loss to the Detroit Lions, dropping Philly to 3-3. Will this team, which clearly has plenty of potential, just put it together already?
» It's not a stretch to say the Lions were playing for their season in overtime against the Eagles. A loss would have dropped them to 1-4 -- a looooong shot for the playoffs. That's how big their 10-point comeback was. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who came alive late, wasn't lying when he told me recently, "We're never out of it. That's the fun part of playing in this offense."
» Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Mike Williams has some skills, huh? Climbing the ladder on his 62-yard touchdown grab was pretty sick. It might not be this year, but the Bucs do look primed to build around big plays by Josh Freeman, assuming he can produce more consistency.
» If you wanted to learn something about the New York Jets, you just did. Rex Ryan's team has lost its best player on defense (Darrelle Revis) and offense (Santonio Holmes). But Gang Green sits at 3-3 in a completely dead-locked AFC East. Looks like the Jets aren't buried just yet.
» Same with the Buffalo Bills. All sorts of issues, some disappointment early ... and still at 3-3. Buffalo might not be going away. OK, this is really the last time I show faith in the Bills. (Promise!)
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.