The circumstances didn’t allow for any real celebration of winning the NFC North title, but there probably wasn’t going to be much celebrating anyway.
The Packers clinched their first division title in four years on the plane back from New Jersey on Sunday night, as the Lions’ loss to the Saints concluded. An announcement was made over the plane’s PA system upon landing, but “I don’t think anybody blinked,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said, because there’s so much still left to accomplish.
“Frankly we just came off a Super Bowl victory, so we look at this as a step,” McCarthy said on Monday. “We look at this as one of the mile markers on our journey to Indianapolis.
“We make no bones about it, winning the Super Bowl is what this business is all about. Winning the division and homefield advantage is the best path to get you there. It’s the preferred path.”
That path requires more work in the regular season, and next up for the Packers is to secure a first-round bye and then clinch homefield advantage. With four regular-season games left, the Packers hold a two-game lead on San Francisco (10-2) and a three-game lead on New Orleans (9-3) in the race for the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
One more victory would secure a first-round bye, and three more clinches the top seed, regardless of how the 49ers and Saints fare the rest of the way.
McCarthy noted he feels he has a “special” group of players this year that’s certainly capable of repeating as Super Bowl champions, and he liked the fact that the players weren’t “bouncing off the wall” after Sunday’s dramatic win over the Giants.
“This is a tough business,” McCarthy said. “We know how important it is to play your best football in December, and that’s what we’re working on.”
Sunday’s game-winning drive showed legitimate progress toward that end. It started with returner Randall Cobb taking a touchback despite the kickoff only going a couple of yards into the end zone, because McCarthy said he wanted the offense to have the full 58 seconds that remained on the clock.
McCarthy called the five-play, 68-yard drive “as clean as you can get,” as quarterback Aaron Rodgers went 4-for-4 prior to Mason Crosby’s walk-off field goal.
The first two plays required route adjustments, which were executed seamlessly. With pressure in his face and the 80,000-plus fans at a fever pitch, Rodgers hit tight end Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson to cover the first 51 yards and get the Packers into field-goal range in a lightning-fast 14 seconds.
“He was challenged getting the ball out of his hand under pressure, and it was managed very well,” McCarthy said.
“The crowd, boy, they really jumped into the game in the fourth quarter. It was loud. To go and perform the way we needed to, it’s impressive. It’s something I take a lot of pride in, trying to prepare the team to do it, but to see those guys pull that off, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what it takes to win those kind of games.”
The Packers practice the two-minute drill regularly throughout training camp, and Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin said it’s worked on at least twice a week during the regular season.
The offense hadn’t faced a last-minute type of drive since the team’s loss last season in Detroit, with Matt Flynn subbing for Rodgers. All the work since then proved worthwhile on Sunday.
“We needed that as an offense,” McCarthy said. “We needed that opportunity.”
It helped compensate for an otherwise up-and-down day that saw the offense produce 31 points but suffer from a half-dozen dropped passes, “OK, not great” pass-protection, and a running game that was “not very good,” to use Philbin’s words. Four different Green Bay running backs combined for just 57 yards on 24 carries (2.4 avg.), with five negative runs on the day.
“The fact of the matter is there were some unclean things,” Philbin said. “The protection at times wasn’t great, we didn’t run the ball very well, dropped the ball a little bit.
“We’ve got a lot of things to work on, but the great thing about it, our guys, when the game counted, they played well and they played hard.”
Injury update: McCarthy said that tight end Andrew Quarless’ knee injury would require surgery, and he is out for the rest of the season.
Cornerback Charles Woodson will go through the league’s concussion protocol, but there’s optimism from the medical staff that he can play this week.
Running back James Starks (ankle) will be “challenged” to practice on Wednesday, McCarthy said, which puts his status for Sunday’s game in doubt.
Linebackers A.J. Hawk (calf), Desmond Bishop (calf) and right guard Josh Sitton (knee), who all missed the Giants game, are scheduled to undergo testing on Wednesday to determine if they can return to practice.
“They’re getting better,” McCarthy said. “They’re getting close.” Additional coverage - Dec. 5