GREEN BAY – This was a week, more so than most, for blocking things out.
Mike McCarthy’s teams have always been pretty good at focusing intently on the task at hand, and it needed to hold true, because there were multiple potential distractions for the Packers to manage heading into their trip to Cleveland.
First and foremost, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was back at practice for a full week for the first time since early October, running the scout team. Rodgers’ potential return to full-time action has been a carrot dangling in front of Green Bay for some time, and this week it was as close to the nose as it’s been.
Rodgers is eligible to play next week, and he’s scheduled to have his surgically repaired right collarbone scanned sometime after returning from Cleveland in an effort to get medical clearance.
The prospect of getting Rodgers back for the stretch run against Carolina, Minnesota and Detroit is enticing for obvious reasons. Everyone saw what happened last year when he helped get a struggling team on the fringe of playoff contention hot in the final weeks. The Packers came one game away from getting back to the Super Bowl.
But even with the jolt of energy and optimism Rodgers might have provided in practice this week, it all goes for naught if the 6-6 Packers don’t beat the 0-12 Browns to keep alive the prospect of finishing with 10 wins and landing a wild-card playoff spot.
With the Panthers, Seahawks and Falcons all at eight wins already, and only two wild-card berths available, finishing 9-7 isn’t going to cut it. And even 10-6 is no guarantee.
So for all the news Rodgers has generated and the smiles he’s put on his teammates’ faces over the past week, McCarthy’s response to a question he received about next week says it all.
“Let’s focus on this week,” he said.
The Packers’ opponent has provided another challenge in that regard.
The Browns haven’t won a game this season, and they’ve won only one game over the last two campaigns. They just fired a team vice president, hired a new general manager, and have the bulk of their focus on the future.
But the Packers can’t afford to let any of that distract them, either. Green Bay has won only two games without Rodgers, and both were down-to-the-wire contests against sub-.500 teams. These are the type of games that test a team’s preparation, because it’s human nature to try to find any moment within the long grind to take a breath.
“Just be a pro,” receiver Jordy Nelson said of how to go about preparing. “You have to take care of your business. Nothing changes. We need to worry about what we have in (the game plan) for this game.
“It’s not going to be an easy game to go play, it’s not going to be an easy game to go win.”
Veteran leadership like that, combined with McCarthy’s steady, routine approach, bodes well for the Packers.
They know the Browns view them, and their ups and downs with a backup quarterback, as a prime opportunity to get that first win and avoid an ignominious 0-16 record. It’s not an insult. It’s reality.
If this game is in the balance in the fourth quarter, the Browns will be giving it everything they have, and even more pressure will pile on the Packers, who are playing for their season anyway.
Handling it all successfully on Sunday in Cleveland will depend in large part on how the Packers handled the potential distractions all week long. Only they know how they went about it, and they’ll soon reveal it to everyone else.
“Make sure we have more points on the scoreboard at the end of the game,” receiver Randall Cobb said, summing up what’s on the team’s mind. “That’s it. Nothing else matters.”