GREEN BAY—The last time the Packers had a playoff bye, in 2011, they were every bit the offensive juggernaut that this year’s team is, if not moreso.
There are two distinct differences worth discussing, though, as the Packers prepare for their upcoming NFC divisional playoff on Jan. 11.
One is how measurably better the 2014 Packers offense performs at home versus on the road. Never in Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s nine-year tenure has there been such a statistical contrast.
The Packers have averaged 39.8 points per game at home this year versus 21.0 on the road. They’ve topped 375 total yards six times at home versus just twice on the road. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception at home but has thrown five on the road. The stats go on and on.
Most important, of course, is the 8-0 record in Green Bay versus the 4-4 mark elsewhere.
As the Packers look to advance to the NFC title game for the third time under McCarthy, having the divisional-round game at home for the first time in three years could really matter.
“The Lambeau advantage this year, it’s real. It really is,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “This year more than any other year I’ve been here. It feels real, and when we’re at home, we’re thriving here.”
The other notable difference between this second-seeded team and the top-seeded one from 2011 is the running game.
Three years ago, James Starks and Ryan Grant combined for 1,137 yards on the ground and just three rushing TDs in the regular season. Green Bay’s ground game accounted for only 24 percent of the offense’s total yards.
When the weather turned cold and the fourth-seeded Giants visited in mid-January, it wasn’t entirely a shock that a scrambling Rodgers was the Packers’ leading rusher in the playoff loss.
It’s hard to imagine the Packers looking that one-sided offensively in this postseason. Eddie Lacy and Starks have combined for 1,472 yards and 11 rushing TDs this season. The ground game has accounted for 31 percent of the offense’s total yards in a year Rodgers remains the front-runner for his second league MVP award.
Having played seven of eight cold games since the bye week, the Packers have topped 150 rushing yards in a game four times, most recently putting up 152 against the NFL’s top-ranked run defense from Detroit.
“In bad weather, we have taken that role on as an offensive line, just that hard-working type role, and go pound ’em type role,” Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton said. “We’ve really embraced that, and we can definitely use that to our advantage in this weather.”
The health of the offensive line is also a factor. Heading into the 2011 playoffs, Bulaga had missed the final two games of the regular season with a knee injury, and veteran left tackle Chad Clifton was coming back from an extended absence.
This year, the Packers have started the same five up front for the past 14 games.
“The explosive gains in the run game have really jumped up the last eight weeks,” McCarthy said. “The continuity on the offensive line is the best we’ve ever had in my time here.
“I go back to the spring. I felt this group had the chance to be the best offensive line, and that’s clearly held true.”
McCarthy emphasized as he dismissed the players after Saturday’s practice that the opponent for next week’s game, which won’t be determined until Sunday evening, shouldn’t matter.
Given the differences between this Packers team and the last one to be playing at home in the divisional round, he’s probably right.
“I like the look of our team,” Rodgers said. “A lot of stuff has to happen to get (to the Super Bowl). We’re a couple games away, but it’s shaping up for us to be in position to make this a special season.
“We started off the right way, getting a home playoff game. We have to take care of business whoever comes in here.”