GREEN BAY—Two years ago, the Packers established momentum at the end of the regular season and in the wild-card round of the playoffs, and rode that to a Super Bowl title.
Last year, they had the shorter path with a first-round bye and flamed out early.
With a playoff spot secure and two weeks to go in the 2012 regular season, Mike McCarthy isn’t letting any of that recent history influence his thinking. Every season is an entity unto itself to McCarthy, and he sees legitimate value in getting the first-round bye for this year’s Packers.
“We want the bye week, make no bones about it,” McCarthy said on Wednesday, calling “overblown” the analysis of the way last year played out, with some starters resting in the regular-season finale and then getting the bye week on top of it, prior to the playoff loss.
The top two seeds in the NFC will get those byes, and the Packers can climb to No. 2 if they win their final two games and San Francisco loses once. The Packers could climb all the way to the No. 1 seed with two wins, a San Francisco loss and two losses by Atlanta, but that scenario is a little more far-fetched. It could be out the window by the time the Packers play this week anyway, because the Falcons play the Lions on Saturday night.
The No. 2 seed is very much in play, though, with the 49ers playing a tough road game Sunday night in Seattle. Green Bay hosts Tennessee before traveling to Minnesota to finish up and will be alive for the No. 2 seed the rest of the way, barring a Packers loss and 49ers win on Sunday.
The Packers, who seemed to be turning a corner health-wise this month, saw their injury list get a little longer this week, and McCarthy sees the rest and recovery a bye week could provide as plenty to play for these last two games.
“It’s important to have a healthy football team, and if you have an opportunity to achieve the bye week, that’s what we’re working for,” McCarthy said. “I’m making it clear right now. We’re going to play all the way through.”
The Packers had nine players miss practice on Wednesday. While McCarthy was optimistic running back Alex Green (concussion), guard T.J. Lang (concussion) and linebacker Erik Walden (ankle) would be fine by Sunday, there’s less known about receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring), tight end Tom Crabtree (hamstring/illness), center Jeff Saturday (neck/shoulder), running back James Starks (knee) and defensive ends C.J. Wilson (knee) and Jerel Worthy (hamstring).
Also, defensive back Charles Woodson (collarbone) continues to practice but hasn’t yet been medically cleared to play.
It’s clear the thinking is the longer the Packers can wait before their season is on the line, the healthier they might be.
“We have some guys that have been banged up,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is on the injury report himself with a sprained ankle, but he practiced fully on Wednesday and is not in jeopardy of missing time. “We’re not sure what ‘Wood’s’ status is going to be, and Jordy. Giving those guys another week in the playoffs can obviously help. It can help some of us older guys, too, with the nicks and bruises that we have from the season.
“It would be nice to get that 2 seed,” added Rodgers, confessing it will be strange to root for Seattle this weekend after what happened in Week 3. “The 1 seed is going to be tough, but the 2 seed is probably doable.”
Whether or not Seattle helps out the Packers this weekend, the greater goal for McCarthy is seeing his team continue to climb toward its peak. The Packers have won eight of their last nine games, but to a man no one in the locker room feels the team has played its best football yet.
“Every individual can take a step forward and progress, and that’s what we have to focus in on and zone in on,” receiver Greg Jennings said. “Mike talked early this morning about playing like it’s the playoffs, like it’s one-game elimination right now. We have to put ourselves in that mindset.”
That may be a stretch mentally when the season isn’t truly hanging in the balance just yet, but the point is well-taken. Resting on the NFC North title isn’t the approach these Packers will take. McCarthy wasn’t kidding last Sunday in Chicago when, in his view, the team was “just getting started.”
These next two weeks matter, too.
“There’s a lot to play for,” Rodgers said. “We learned last year you have to be playing the right way at the end of the season.” Additional coverage - Dec. 19