GREEN BAY—Four games, each played with the season at stake, not one of them decided until crunch time, three of them in the final dozen seconds.
That’s what the Packers are taking with them into the 2013 playoffs, and to Head Coach Mike McCarthy, that will mean just as much if not more than any film they watch of the San Francisco 49ers or any schemes they draw up this week.
“I don’t know how we could be better prepared for playoff football than what we’ve been through the last four weeks,” McCarthy said on Monday, less than 24 hours after the last of the four down-to-the-wire games won the NFC North for Green Bay.
“I’d take our four-week experience over everything. We’ll see what happens.”
The experience began with needing to recover from rock bottom in Detroit on Thanksgiving and post two come-from-behind wins over Atlanta and Dallas with backup quarterback Matt Flynn.
The Packers nearly rallied for a third straight victory in Week 16 vs. Pittsburgh, and then Aaron Rodgers pulled off the most dramatic comeback on Sunday in Chicago, throwing a 48-yard TD pass on fourth down with just 38 seconds left.
The trials of the season, and particularly the past month, have changed the identity of the Packers, in McCarthy’s mind. They were a team that fed off momentum and got rolling in October but, out of necessity, became 60-minute grinders in December.
“This team has embraced it,” McCarthy said. “We know it’s going to take the full game to get it done, and that’s the way we play.”
Nothing epitomizes the every-last-snap mentality more than the 15-play, 87-yard masterpiece to beat the Bears, which McCarthy called the “finest” drive he’s ever been a part of, especially considering the stakes.
It featured three fourth-down conversions, the first a fourth-and-one plunge from the Green Bay 22-yard line by fullback John Kuhn that the offense had to talk McCarthy into running when he initially sent the punt team onto the field with just under five minutes to play.
Having only one timeout left was what ultimately swayed McCarthy to try to keep the ball.
“You do want your players to grab onto it and take it and make them part of it,” McCarthy said. “I loved the fact they wanted to go for it.
“They were right. There was only one timeout in that situation, and playing the high side (of caution) and playing defense there was probably not the best choice. I ultimately may have regretted that decision if I had punted.”
The Bears stayed aggressive on defense and Rodgers burned a blitz with the game-winning TD toss despite dealing with some cramping on that final drive.
“To fight through that, and mentally what he’s been through the last three weeks, my goodness,” McCarthy said. “I think this is probably his finest hour as a Green Bay Packer.”
That’s quite a statement about a quarterback with Super Bowl and league MVP trophies on his shelf, but McCarthy just as strongly emphasized that upon returning to work Monday it was quickly “back to business” with the 49ers coming to town.
Running back Eddie Lacy’s troublesome ankle is in better shape now than it was after the Pittsburgh game, when he sat out the fourth quarter, and outside linebacker Clay Matthews remains out following thumb surgery.
That’s the extent of the health update for a Packers team that has been in playoff mode for a month and feels ready for whatever the postseason throws its way.
“When you have to earn it to get in, it’s very rewarding,” McCarthy said. “It also gives you the ability to apply to what comes next, and that’s the way we’re looking at it.”