In fact, Head Coach Mike McCarthy feels the abbreviated week before Saturday night’s NFC Divisional playoff game in Atlanta will only help the team stay focused and hopefully maintain the roll it is on.
“We feel very good, the fact that we’ve played three weeks in a row in a very competitive playoff atmosphere,” McCarthy said on Monday. “So that’s what we’re taking into the game. We feel the short week helps us. We’re in sync, we’re ready to go. We’ll be smart with our practice reps this week because I want to make sure our players are as fresh as possible for this game.”
Physical considerations will be taken with the players’ bodies during the three-day practice week, which will begin on Tuesday rather than the normal Wednesday.
But mentally this team is in as good a shape as it could be, adding a down-to-the-wire road playoff victory to the two home wins over double-digit victory teams that got the Packers into the playoffs. The Week 17 victory over Chicago and Sunday’s Wild Card win at Philadelphia both required a defensive stop deep in Green Bay territory in the final minute, and the defense came up with the clinching interception.
As the No. 6 playoff seed in the NFC, the Packers knew they’d have to adopt a “road warrior” mentality to make a playoff run. Going to Philadelphia, where the Packers were able to repeat their victory from Week 1, and now heading to Atlanta, where the Packers took the NFC’s top seed to the final seconds before losing by a field goal, are road trips the team has a lot to draw from.
“When you win a playoff game on the road, that’s definitely a big dose of confidence that is added to your football team,” McCarthy said. “We were really confident going into the Philadelphia game. We felt it was a contest that we expected to win, and from that experience it will give us more confidence, and we’re going to Atlanta, and we fully expect to win.
“We’ve been a good football team all year. We have an opportunity to achieve greatness, and that will start with the second step in Atlanta.”
If there’s one issue the Packers must clean up, it’s what McCarthy refers to as “ball-handling.”
Over their last two games, the Packers have been charged with six fumbles, losing three, and they’ve turned the ball over four times total. Also, several dropped passes have hurt the offense’s cause, including two potential long touchdowns by Greg Jennings against the Bears and James Jones against the Eagles.
“That’s two weeks now, Chicago and Philadelphia,” McCarthy said. “We will definitely make a bigger emphasis if we possibly can on taking care of the football. You can’t turn the ball over. These games in the playoffs, they come down to one play a lot of times, so we need to maximize our opportunities.”
McCarthy pointed out that poor ball-handling can really prove costly against a team like Atlanta, because the Falcons possess a good ball-control offense that keeps the ball away from their opponents. In the Packers’ Week 12 trip to Atlanta, they had just seven possessions on offense, not counting ones at the end of each half that both began with less than 10 seconds on the clock.
He’s the man
When rookie running back James Starks burst on the scene in Week 13 with 18 carries for 73 yards against San Francisco, he didn’t receive feature back status like many expected.
McCarthy stopped short of conferring that upon him on Monday, but it’s obviously no secret that Starks will be the key to the Packers’ ground game going forward after his 23-carry, 123-yard day against the Eagles.
“He’s going to carry the ball in Atlanta,” McCarthy said. “He’s earned that. The young man was extremely productive and works extremely hard.
“It’s nice to see someone like James put as much into it, stay patient, stay confident, and when his number is called, to produce.”
Starks’ 123 yards not only broke the franchise rookie record for a postseason game, but the effort ranks third in franchise postseason annals for any player behind only Ryan Grant’s 201 yards (vs. Seattle, 2007 Divisional) and Ahman Green’s 156 yards (at Philadelphia, 2003 Divisional).
The Packers did a couple of rather unconventional things with the running game on Sunday. They employed a two-fullback, inverted wishbone formation with Starks running behind fullbacks Quinn Johnson and John Kuhn on a number of plays, and McCarthy confirmed that on one snap, left tackle Chad Clifton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga switched sides of the line.
McCarthy said that receiver Donald Driver’s bruised knee should not keep him from practicing this week or playing in Atlanta.
Also, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who played for the first time after missing the final four games of the regular season with a calf injury, came out of the game OK as well.
“It will be good to see Cullen go through another week of practice, and he’ll be ready to go in Atlanta,” McCarthy said.