With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Nelson wore extra padding under his No. 87 jersey in an effort to play against Atlanta during Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, two weeks after he sustained broken ribs in a wild-card win over the Giants
While Sunday’s outcome wasn’t what the Packers desired, a 44-21 defeat at the hands of the Falcons, Nelson looked like his usual self in catching six passes for 67 yards and a touchdown to help lead the Packers’ banged-up offense.
Afterward, the NFL comeback player of the year candidate brushed off questions about his toughness and pain tolerance, but his teammates in the locker room understood what the former Pro Bowler was dealing with.
“It’s what we needed. It’s what we needed from him,” tight end Jared Cook said. “It takes heart and it takes a lot of pride for a man to come out and step up, and come back when he did not have to. That shows a lot about his character and the type of man he is.”
Nelson was one of seven players listed as questionable entering Sunday’s game, including fellow receivers Davante Adams (ankle) and Geronimo Allison (hamstring). Knowing what the stakes were, all seven suited up against the Falcons.
Nelson said he’d been thinking about his potential return since he first injured his ribs early in the NFC Wild Card game. After tests showed no internal damage, his focus immediately turned to a possible return.
Nelson received the go-ahead from team doctors and trainers after practicing in a limited capacity this past week, but it still left questions about how effective he could be with the additional padding under his uniform.
Those were quickly answered on the Packers’ first offensive series when quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed his first pass of the game to Nelson in the middle of the field for 27 yards.
Rodgers then went back to Nelson again on the next play for another 15-yard gain near the sideline. With an 8-yard catch in the second quarter, Nelson also reset the franchise record for career postseason catches and pushed that number to 54 by the end.
“He’s a tough guy and he cares a lot about this football team,” Adams said. “It takes a special person to go through what he did and come out and play, and play at a high level. My hat is off to him for that.”
Adams and Allison each sustained their respective injuries in the Packers’ win over Dallas last Sunday. Adams said he made enough progress throughout the week to play, but admitted to feeling pain throughout most of the game.
Still, he and Nelson each caught a touchdown pass from Rodgers in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to get the Packers back into the game after falling behind 24-0 at halftime through a cocktail of missed opportunities and turnovers.
“I think throughout the week everyone got a feeling that Jordy and Davante, and those guys were going to give it a go,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “Nobody expected the results today. Just couldn’t get anything going. (Atlanta) got off to a hot start and just kept that going the whole game.”
The loss, which snapped an eight-game winning streak, underscored the resiliency the team showed throughout the course of the season.
In addition to the team’s pre-existing injuries, several players exited with injuries and didn’t return. Still, the Packers fought till the end even when it required starting defensive tackle Letroy Guion to fill in at right guard in the final two minutes of the game when Lang (foot), Lane Taylor (knee) and Bryan Bulaga (evaluation for a concussion) all left.
That’s why Nelson doesn’t see his particular situation as “anything special.” He was healthy enough to play under the circumstances, so he went to work on Sunday.
While it wasn’t the ending he or the team envisioned, Nelson broke several records throughout the course of the year and finished the regular season with a team-high 97 catches for 1,254 yards and 14 touchdown catches, the most in the NFL in 2016.
“Everyone is banged up right now.” Nelson said. “We needed everyone out there, so everyone did their job to get healthy enough to go play. That’s what we tried to go out and do and we didn’t execute well enough.”