Putting the party on hold

Green Bay still not ready to cel­e­brate its turn­around

Packer Plus - - COMMENTARY - ROB REISCHEL

Green Bay — There weren’t any bal­loons or stream­ers. No party hats, noise­mak­ers or con­grat­u­la­tory ban­ners.

Late Sun­day night, Green Bay’s locker room didn’t have a New Year’s Eve feel to it — even though it was still Jan. 1.

In­stead, the Pack­ers were more business-like than fes­tive af­ter de­feat­ing Detroit, 31-24, and claim­ing their fifth NFC North ti­tle in six years.

“It wasn’t the best cel­e­bra­tion we’ve ever had,” Pack­ers coach Mike McCarthy ad­mit­ted. “Our guys were tapped out.” There are two rea­sons for that. One, this “run the ta­ble” jour­ney has been part ex­hil­a­rat­ing, part ex­haust­ing.

Green Bay’s obit­u­ary was be­ing writ­ten when it was 4-6 through 10 games. In fact, be­tween 1990-2013, just 7% of teams that be­gan the year 4-6 even­tu­ally made the post­sea­son.

But quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers pulled a Joe Na­math, said his team could “run the ta­ble” and then de­liv­ered. Down the stretch, Green Bay caught fire and won its fi­nal six games, Detroit lost its last three games, and the Pack­ers found a way to claim an­other divi­sional ti­tle.

“This is def­i­nitely big,” said Pack­ers safety Mor­gan Bur­nett. “We can’t sit here and act like it’s noth­ing. This is re­ally big.

“You’re talk­ing about guys sit­ting 4-6. I said this be­fore, un­til you judge a team off ad­ver­sity, it’s easy to walk around when things are go­ing your way, but the great teams, it’s how they re­spond to ad­ver­sity. I feel like this team stuck to­gether and re­sponded very well.”

They did. And that’s par­tially why the Pack­ers weren’t in the mood for cel­e­bra­tions Sun­day night.

As McCarthy said, “We have big­ger as­pi­ra­tions. So this is the first step.” Right­fully so. Re­mem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the wise guys in the desert, the Pack­ers and Seat­tle be­gan the year as co-fa­vorites to win the NFC. In fact, Green Bay was fa­vored to win ev­ery one of its games back in Septem­ber.

In re­al­ity, Green Bay’s mis­er­able start was prob­a­bly a greater sur­prise than its sen­sa­tional fin­ish. Now that th­ese Pack­ers are back on track — and Rodgers is play­ing like the bad­dest man in foot­ball — cel­e­brat­ing a berth into the 12-team post­sea­son tour­na­ment seems al­most silly.

Af­ter all, this is old hat for Green Bay. And in the com­ing weeks, there are far big­ger fish to fry — and be­he­moths to de­feat.

Re­mem­ber, this is Green Bay’s eighth con­sec­u­tive trip to the post­sea­son, the sec­ond-long­est streak in the NFL be­hind only New Eng­land. In many ways, reach­ing the play­offs is sim­ply old hat.

The Pack­ers ex­pe­ri­enced the ul­ti­mate high in win­ning Su­per Bowl XLV fol­low­ing the 2010 sea­son. But no NFL team has ex­pe­ri­enced painful, cruel play­off losses quite like Green Bay has.

There was the Jan­uary 2015 col­lapse in Seat­tle. Over­time play­off losses in Ari­zona af­ter both the 2009 and 2015 reg­u­lar sea­sons. Colin Kaeper­nick and the 49ers oust­ing Green Bay in the play­offs af­ter the 2012 and ’13 sea­sons. And a bru­tal home loss to the New York Giants in Jan­uary 2012 af­ter Green Bay went 15-1 dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son and en­tered the game as an 8-point fa­vorite.

Now, the Pack­ers face the Giants one more time. And while reach­ing the post­sea­son is cer­tainly a cel­e­bra­tory mo­ment for most NFL teams, Green Bay isn’t one of those.

“Maybe that’s why we’re not do­ing cart­wheels right now,” McCarthy said. “Our plan’s to try to win it all.”

That should be the plan as Green Bay tries ex­tend­ing this “run the ta­ble” mantra four more games. And here’s why.

First, Rodgers is play­ing bet­ter than any­one in foot­ball, throw­ing 15 touch­downs and no in­ter­cep­tions dur­ing this six-game win­ning streak. His ac­cu­racy, in­tel­lect, de­ci­sion-mak­ing and abil­ity to ex­tend plays gives Green Bay an ad­van­tage over al­most any team it would play.

Sec­ond, there is no clear-cut fa­vorite in the NFC. While Dal­las is the No. 1 seed, no rookie quar­ter­back has ever led his team to the Su­per Bowl. And the Cow­boys just hap­pen to be led by rookie quar­ter­back Dak Prescott.

Sec­ond-seeded At­lanta had a ter­rific sea­son and Fal­cons quar­ter­back Matt Ryan is play­ing ev­ery bit as well as Rodgers. But the Fal­cons’ de­fense is just as sus­pect as Green Bay’s, and the Pack­ers have en­joyed play­off suc­cess in At­lanta (see 2010 sea­son).

Third-seeded Seat­tle doesn’t frighten peo­ple like it did in re­cent years. The fifth-seeded Giants could be the scari­est team in the NFC, while sixth-seeded Detroit is skid­ding.

Green Bay, on the other hand, has put things to­gether at just the right time.

Rodgers and the of­fense have thrived thanks to the emer­gence of play­ers like Ty Mont­gomery, Geron­imo Al­li­son and Da­vante Adams. And while the de­fense — es­pe­cially the cor­ner­back group — is in ru­ins, Dom Ca­pers is do­ing more with less than al­most any­one in foot­ball.

In a wide-open NFC — and re­ally NFL — any­thing seems pos­si­ble.

“Ob­vi­ously, we’re in the play­offs now, and the goal is to win the Su­per Bowl,” Rodgers said. “But this is a new team. This is an ex­cited group of guys that be­lieve in each other, and any­thing can hap­pen when you get in the play­offs. We know that. We did that (six) years ago. It’s a fun group of guys, though. It’s fun to win with th­ese guys, and it’s fun to do it the way we did the last six weeks.”

If the Pack­ers can do it four more, then they’ll break out the con­fetti.

Un­til then, it’s business as usual.

MARK HOFF­MAN / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SENTINEL

Pack­ers quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers and tackle David Bakhtiari cel­e­brate a touch­down Sun­day in the sec­ond quar­ter of their vic­tory over Detroit.

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