“Our approach moving forward is it’s a seven-day season,” McCarthy said.
It makes perfect sense to look at it that way. By beating the Jets this past Sunday, the Packers improved to 5-3 and took over first place in the NFC North ahead of the idle Chicago Bears (4-3). Should they beat the Cowboys to get to 6-3 at the bye, the Packers will emerge from their sure-to-be welcomed week off no worse than in a tie for first with Chicago with seven games to play, or still in first all alone if the Bears lose either of their next two games.
The upcoming bye, which in Week 10 is the latest in the season it can possibly be, will probably do wonders for the team in terms of health and rest. Defensive end Ryan Pickett’s ankle can use the healing time. So can receiver Donald Driver’s quadriceps and defensive end Cullen Jenkins’ calf. Heck, even Clay Matthews’ hamstring, Charles Woodson’s toe and Chad Clifton’s knee will benefit, and that trio has only missed one game among them thus far.
Add to that the players who have played virtually every snap with their units for the entire season – guys like nose tackle B.J. Raji, cornerback Tramon Williams and safety Nick Collins on defense and the three interior linemen in center Scott Wells and guards Josh Sitton and Daryn Colledge on offense, plus quarterback Aaron Rodgers of course – and some rest is not only well-deserved but necessary.
But there’s still one more game to play before that, and it would be a shame to lose the progress that has been made the past two weeks by beating Minnesota and New York to climb above .500 and into first place. Hence the approach that all the head coach wants his team looking at is one more game.
Not the daunting stretch after the bye of four road games in five weeks. Or three games against first-place teams (Atlanta, New England and the New York Giants) over the last seven contests.
One more game, and building on the big win over the Jets in the process.
“That’s definitely a big shot of confidence you can carry forward,” McCarthy said. “There’s no question about it. But it’s no different. You need to use it properly.
“We can keep improving. We’ve won two games. We need to get this third one, and that’s our focus. We need to stay right on line with that.”
The opponent couldn’t be in a more different place than the one the Packers just beat. The Cowboys are reeling at 1-6, have given up 76 points in back-to-back home losses the past two weeks, are dealing with rumors about the future of their head coach, and have lost their starting quarterback, Tony Romo, for possibly two months to a broken collarbone.
All of that would seem to point to a golden opportunity to kick a team while it’s down on Sunday at Lambeau Field. While everyone thought the Packers would lose to the Jets, who were on a five-game winning streak, everyone will expect the Packers to beat the Cowboys, who are on a four-game losing streak.
In some ways, this week could present as tough if not tougher a coaching job for McCarthy than last week did, and he knows it.
“We’ve got a motivated team coming here, and we need to get this one here at home Sunday night and get to the bye,” McCarthy said. “That’s our focus.”
New kickoff returner?
It’s possible the Packers will have a new kickoff returner for the Dallas game. Pat Lee left the game with an ankle injury and McCarthy said he’s probably out for this week’s game.
With Driver’s potential absence moving Jordy Nelson up the pecking order at receiver, that could prompt the Packers to try another kickoff return man other than Lee or Nelson, who have handled the duties all season.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said with Lee out, the options would be Nelson, cornerback Tramon Williams or running back Dimitri Nance. Williams has been handling the punt returns all season, while Nance has been with the team since Week 2 but has yet to actually touch the ball since his first game.
“He’s a skilled runner,” Slocum said. “That’s why he’s a tailback. I think our return scheme fits his abilities.”
Nance missed Sunday’s game with an ankle injury and has been on and off the 45-man active gameday roster since his arrival. As it turned out Sunday, the Packers didn’t have to try another kickoff returner after the game’s opening kickoff because the Jets never scored.
“We’ll look at the whole potential active roster and make our decision based on that,” Slocum said.
For all the trouble the Packers have had at punter over the past 2½ seasons, McCarthy can be forgiven for the praise he lavished on first-year punter Tim Masthay after his superb outing on Sunday.
Masthay punted eight times for a 44.0-yard gross average and a 41.5-yard net average in the tricky winds at New Meadowlands Stadium. He also placed five of his punts inside the 20, keeping the Packers in control of the field position all game long.
“I can’t tell you how good this feels to say this – this is the finest punting performance I’ve – I’m not exaggerating, I’m not dramatic – the finest punting performance that I’ve ever been a part of in all my years on both sides of the ball,” McCarthy said, unable to hold back a smile and elicit a few laughs from the media, who have peppered him with questions dating back to the start of the 2008 season about Derrick Frost, Jeremy Kapinos and Masthay’s early struggles this year.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am for Tim. It makes me want to cry. I thought he was tremendous. That was, you talk about a field-position game. I thought that was remarkable.”
Then he closed with another smile. “He just needs to do it every week now and we’ll be fine.”
Truth be told, both Masthay and Jets punter Steve Weatherford had very good days, other than Weatherford’s ill-advised decision to try to run for a first down on fourth-and-18 in New York’s own territory. Weatherford had five punts for 43.2-yard gross and net averages with one inside the 20.
In all, there were 13 punts with six fair-catches, three that were downed, two that went out of bounds and one touchback. The only attempted return was by the Jets’ Jim Leonhard, who was buried for no return.
“I thought that was extraordinary -- there were 13 punts in the game with no return yards,” Slocum said. “It was a challenging wind. I’m surprised they hit the ball that well in light of the wind.”
The effort of the entire special teams units was strong. The Jets had one long kickoff return out to midfield, but otherwise were held in check. The Jets’ best field position after a Masthay punt all game was their own 23-yard line. The Packers’ kickoff coverage unit also got the Jets once at the 19-yard line as well.
“It’s a players’ game and our players played well yesterday,” Slocum said. “When you can force your opponent to start six drives inside the 20, I think it’s a good day.”
During the team meeting on Monday, game balls were awarded to receiver Greg Jennings on offense (six catches, 81 yards), to the entire defense and coaching staff on defense, and to Masthay on special teams.
Also, safety Anthony Smith got the “big hit” award. Smith took down Weatherford along the sideline on the fake punt short of the first down.
With just three penalties for 15 yards against the Jets, the Packers have been flagged just five times for a total of 35 yards over their past two games. That’s the fewest number of penalties for the Packers over a two-game stretch since the final two games of the 2007 regular season (three penalties, 35 yards).
These last two games are also the third and fourth times this season the Packers have been called for three or fewer penalties in a game. That’s more than any other year under McCarthy, as the Packers didn’t have a single game last season with three or fewer penalties and had just two in 2008, the two in ’07 to end the regular season and three in ’06. This year the Packers are 4-0 in those games with three penalties or less.
Since the Packers were flagged a franchise-record 18 times for 152 yards in the loss to Chicago in Week 3, they’ve committed just 24 penalties for 174 yards over their last five games, an average of 4.8 penalties for 34.8 yards per game.
“The Chicago game was a black eye for us,” McCarthy said. “We felt that definitely factored in the outcome of that football game. We’re working on it.”
More on injuries
McCarthy said the ankle sprain Rodgers sustained in the fourth quarter on Sunday shouldn’t force him to miss any time. Also, tight end Andrew Quarless sustained a shoulder sprain and was undergoing further tests, but McCarthy said the doctors didn’t seem overly concerned about it.
Driver’s quadriceps injury is actually two injuries – first a bruise and then a muscle strain. McCarthy said Driver would be questionable for practice this week and the team would take a cautious approach with him. He has played each of the last two games with the injury, but he didn’t make it through the first half against the Jets and hasn’t caught a pass in the last two games.
McCarthy also clarified that the three-week window to activate cornerback Al Harris, safety Atari Bigby and/or running back James Starks from the physically-unable-to-perform list closes next Monday, following the Dallas game. All three players will have to be activated (with corresponding roster moves made to clear room), released or placed on injured reserve by then.