GREEN BAY — Julius Peppers has experienced three close calls.
He’s not interested in a fourth.
Peppers reached a Super Bowl as a second-year player nearly a dozen years ago with the Carolina Panthers and lost on a late field goal. He also went to the 2005 and ’10 NFC title games (with the Panthers and Bears, respectively) and came up short.
Sunday’s return to an NFC Championship game will occur on Peppers’ 35th birthday, and though he hasn’t stated publicly how much longer he plans on playing, Father Time alone indicates his chances at a ring are dwindling.
“This has been a great year,” Peppers said on Wednesday, addressing a full media auditorium and national TV audience at Lambeau Field. “The thing I hope is different this time is I eventually get over the hump and get it done. I’ve gotten close a few times. Hopefully this is it.”
One of Peppers’ missed opportunities actually occurred in Seattle, site of Sunday’s NFC title tilt. At this stage in the 2005 postseason, the Seahawks beat Peppers’ Panthers to advance to the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
Peppers recalled that Seattle’s “12th man thing was getting started” then, but on a more personal level, he didn’t expect it to take two years to be on the verge of a Super Bowl again after going to the big game the first time.
Then it was another five years after that, in his first season in Chicago. Now it’s four years after that, in his first season in Green Bay.
“All of those were close calls. I always thought I’d be back the following year, and it never happened,” he said. “It makes you realize that you have to take advantage of the moment when you have it.”
With the Packers, Peppers said he has enjoyed coming to work every day, and he has enjoyed winning.
He has contributed his share on the field, posting seven sacks and two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the regular season. In the playoff victory over Dallas last Sunday, he added another sack and two forced fumbles, one of which the Packers recovered to help turn the tide in the second half.
Perhaps his even larger impact has been outside of gameday, as a defensive captain who will talk to younger players in the locker room or call the group together on the practice field to focus everyone before an important workout.
“I think he’s been a quiet leader,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “A lot of guys have fed off of his experience, off of his knowledge of the game.
“As the year’s gone on, he’s getting more comfortable with us and speaking more with the defense and understanding that guys are leaning on him to be that leader, and looking up to him. So I think that’s been great, and being a steady force on the defense.”
Nelson, of course, has been one of Green Bay’s steady forces on offense all season, though he surprisingly had only two catches for 22 yards against the Cowboys.
His lack of production didn’t hurt the Packers, as Randall Cobb and Davante Adams both went over 100 yards receiving in the game, but Nelson hadn’t been that quiet in a playoff contest since the 2010 wild-card round.
He said that won’t impact his approach on Sunday, nor will he get hung up on whether or not he’ll go head-to-head with Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman at some point. Sherman never guarded Nelson in Week 1, and Nelson had nine receptions for 83 yards.
“I’m not worried about that,” he said. “It’ll play out with our no-huddle. A lot will be based off of our first formation. If we get matched up, it will be a great challenge and a great opportunity, but I’m not going to go out of my way to go over there. We’re going to run our offense and do what we need to do to win.”
The Packers’ health should help. Aside from quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ calf injury, the team is as healthy as can be. All 53 active-roster players practiced on Wednesday, with defensive lineman Josh Boyd (ankle) and left guard Josh Sitton (toe) the only players along with Rodgers listed on the injury report as limited.
“It’s all hands on deck,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “All part of your preparation. To be able to play with the same 53, the same 46 for a couple weeks is a huge benefit.”
As for the 120 minutes the injured Rodgers said he has left in him, McCarthy is focused only on half of that right now.
“I have no doubt at all,” he said. “I’m only worried about Sunday. I’m counting on Aaron to keep playing the way he’s been playing.”
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