GREEN BAY — The smile still hadn’t left Jared Cook’s face one day after the Packers clinched their fifth NFC North championship in six years.
For most veterans in Green Bay’s locker room, Sunday night’s 31-24 win over Detroit represented another ticket to the tournament and a crack at a potential run toward the Lombardi Trophy.
For Cook, it goes much deeper than that. The veteran tight end never has been to the playoffs in any of his previous seven seasons and signed with the Packers this offseason for that very reason.
Once the team’s celebration subsided after the victory at Ford Field, Cook picked up his phone and called his wife, Lana. It was in that moment that everything settled in for the 29-year-old tight end.
“We were both just happy,” Cook said. “It’s a feeling that I’ve never felt and it’s exciting to get to the playoffs. It’s a place I’ve never been. It’s exciting to be in a playoff game.”
Cook’s impact on the Packers goes well beyond his 30 catches for 377 yards and one touchdown in 10 games this season. Teammates will tell you the offense is different when the 6-foot-5, 254-pound playmaker is on the field.
On Sunday night, the Lions put heavy emphasis on receiver Jordy Nelson in the first half. With coverage shaded his direction, Cook came free for three catches for 41 yards in the first half.
When the Lions started paying more attention to the tight end in the second half, that’s when receivers Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison started to get going.
While Aaron Rodgers’ MVP-caliber season has helped lift the Packers to their eighth consecutive postseason appearance, Cook has provided a spark to the passing game since he returned from a midseason ankle injury that sidelined him for six games.
“He always plays to the best of his abilities,” said Cook of Rodgers. “He puts his heart out there and his soul, and we’re right behind him. I wouldn’t rather be going into postseason play with anybody else. I’m excited about it. I think he’s going to continue to do big things.”
After Sunday’s win, Cook could be seen smiling from ear-to-ear inside the Packers’ locker room, as he placed a NFC North division champions cap on his head, the first piece of playoff memorabilia he’s ever acquired in 117 career regular-season games.
“When they passed out those championship hats, I don’t think I’ve seen anybody smile to put it on his head more than Jared Cook,” Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “That’s the beauty of this because you have players here that have been in that position, they’re thankful, they’re appreciative, but they’re also looking forward.
“But for the rookies, first-year players and the guys who have not, it’s a big deal and it should be. It’s a big deal to win a division championship in this league. To me, that’s just another component of the energy and confidence you want a part of your football team.”
Cook said on Monday that his experience is a little different from the rest of the locker room. Other than a smattering of rookies, he’s the only veteran who’s never been to the playoffs before.
At the same time, the task is far from over for Cook and the Packers. Another challenge awaits them this Sunday when the No. 4 seed Packers host the No. 5 New York Giants at Lambeau Field.
“Coming from my perspective, you know how tough it is,” Cook said. “It’s a difficult league to play in and it’s a place I’ve been trying to get to for eight years. It’s a feeling I’ve always wanted to feel and now being able to feel it for the first time, I can’t even describe how cool it is.”