Well, the Packers have a tough path to a title as an NFC Wild Card team relegated to the road throughout the playoffs, but McCarthy will certainly go into this postseason believing his defense is playing its best. That, in his mind, gives Green Bay a fighting chance against anyone.
“I think it’s important for your team to be noted for great defense,” McCarthy said. “That’s always been the goal in my tenure here, and I think we definitely have reached that.
“It starts with defense. I’ve always looked at defense as the thermostat. When you have great defense, they keep you in games, week in and week out.”
That has proven true for the 2010 Packers, who finished the regular season ranked second in the league in points allowed (15.0). Green Bay lost six games this season, but all were by three- or four-point margins largely because the defense still gave the team a shot at victory when the offense had off days.
The defense kept three teams – the Jets, Vikings and Bears – out of the end zone over the past nine games, and two of the season’s biggest victories came against the Jets and the Bears when the offense managed just 19 total points in 9-0 and 10-3 decisions.
The defense also held Detroit to just seven points in Week 14, which allowed the offense to have a chance to win at the end of a 7-3 defeat.
This past Sunday’s win-to-get-in performance may have been the most impressive with Chicago having scored 78 points in its previous two games. The Bears posted just 227 total yards and only once drove the ball into the red zone, settling for a field goal for their only points. The only other red-zone possession, set up by the Bears’ defense via turnover, ended scoreless due to another turnover.
“This defense shows up week in and week out,” said linebacker Clay Matthews, who finished his regular season with a team- and career-high 13½ sacks. “I think we do a fantastic job with the scheme we have, the players we have, and to hold a team that’s been on a roll to three points is a fantastic job, so we’re happy about it. Defensively we feel good.”
Added fellow linebacker Desmond Bishop: “I think the course of the season, our body of work has given us real confidence. We’ll go anywhere, anytime and play.”
That’s the mentality the Packers will need as their playoff road starts at NFC East champion Philadelphia on Sunday, and the defense faces a major challenge in dual-threat quarterback Michael Vick. Unlike in Week 1, when the Packers prepared all week for Eagles starter Kevin Kolb, only to see Vick replace an injured Kolb for the second half, this time defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have the requisite time needed to formulate a plan for Vick.
In addition, unlike last year – when the Packers’ perceived vulnerability against elite passing quarterbacks proved true in the playoffs as Arizona’s Kurt Warner threw five touchdown passes to lead the Cardinals to a 51-45 overtime win in the Wild Card round – there don’t seem to be those glaring question marks hanging over the defense’s head.
“Last year, that’s old news,” safety Nick Collins said. “I’m not even going back there. We feel like we’re a better team now.”
They are, having dropped their regular-season points-allowed average by more than a field goal (18.6 to 15.0 per game) despite less prolific turnover numbers (40 in 2009, 32 in 2010) and a slide from the league’s No. 1 defense against the run last year (83.3 yards per game) to No. 18 this year (114.9). In other words, this defense doesn’t hang its hat on a couple of things, but appears more well-rounded, even in the face of a season-long spate of injuries and various fill-ins making key contributions.
This group also is arguably more battle-tested, having held two double-digit-win teams in the Giants and Bears without a touchdown over the last six quarters. And if you chalk up 14 points in the New England game to gifts no one could do much about (an interception returned for a touchdown and a long kickoff return to set up first-and-goal on the 4-yard line), the defense hasn’t given up more than 20 points in any of the last nine games.
That’s what McCarthy means when he says, “When you have great defense, you’re in every game,” which then leaves it up to the offense to do whatever it takes to win. It may seem a somewhat curious mindset for a head coach with an offensive background like McCarthy to possess, and he can’t exactly pinpoint when he first espoused it. But working for the first six years of his NFL coaching career under Marty Schottenheimer in Kansas City, a blue-collar team known for defense, played a role, and if he ever entertained even the slightest doubts about the philosophy, they were erased after the way the Packers exited the playoffs a year ago.
“The intensity we played with (Sunday vs. Chicago), we have to keep playing with that intensity throughout,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “We can’t have a repeat of what happened last year. This playoff game, we have to come out and play with the same fire we played with (Sunday) and good things will happen.”
Hopefully for longer than just one more week.
“If we can get things going the way we know we can,” cornerback Tramon Williams said, “it’s going to be a great run.”
Reflecting how well both the defense and special teams played Sunday, the entire defense received a game ball while four players on special teams also received the recognition from the coaching staff.
Punter Tim Masthay, long snapper Brett Goode and defensive back Jarrett Bush, along with Williams as the return man, all received special-teams game balls.
The only player on an admittedly rough day for the offense to receive a game ball was center Scott Wells, who received considerable praise from McCarthy.
“I think Scott is having his best year in my time here,” he said. “I can’t reflect on how he played prior to my arrival, but I think this is clearly Scott Wells’ best season. He grades out very high week in and week out. I think he will clearly grade out as the highest offensive lineman when it is all said and done. I think Scott has had a Pro Bowl-type year.”
Four players who missed Sunday’s game due to injuries – safety Atari Bigby (groin), fullback Korey Hall (knee), linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) and defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf) – are expected to go through testing on Monday and Tuesday and could possibly return to practice this week.
Bigby and Hall have just missed one game due to their current injuries, but Zombo has missed the last three and Jenkins the last four. All four players will be re-evaluated by the medical staff on Wednesday morning.