GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy hasn’t uttered the actual words again, but you know it’s how he feels about his team.
Six years ago, when the Packers were headed to New England in prime time for a December game that was potentially do-or-die for their season, Green Bay didn’t have its starting quarterback and was facing a Tom Brady-led squad with the longest home winning streak in the league. Yet, McCarthy stood at the podium mid-week and declared:
“We’re nobody’s underdog.”
The Packers proved him right, coming within 15 yards of victory in a four-point loss that ended up not closing the door on the season because of some help elsewhere around the league.
You know the rest of the story. Green Bay didn’t lose another game.
The circumstances aren’t even close to parallel as the Packers travel to Dallas for Sunday’s NFC Divisional playoff, but let’s lay them out anyway.
The Cowboys are the conference’s top seed with 13 wins, a regular-season total that became impossible for the Packers the week after Halloween, less than a month after the Cowboys strutted out of Lambeau Field with a 14-point triumph.
Dallas had every player on its 53-man roster participate in some capacity in both Wednesday’s and Thursday’s practices, while Green Bay will have to adjust to the loss of its top receiver (Jordy Nelson) and continue playing two key defenders with a club cast (Nick Perry) and bum shoulder (Clay Matthews).
There’s more, with the Cowboys sporting the league’s leading rusher and the league’s top run defense, but why belabor it all?
McCarthy couldn’t care less. The team he has coached back from the 4-6 brink is paying attention to one context and one context only – the Packers are playing their best football at the right time of the year, which any coach would take regardless of practically any other circumstance.
“We have great confidence in who we are,” McCarthy said this week. “We had every intention of being here this week, and this is exactly where we are and we know how we got here.”
He hasn’t pulled his 6-year-old line out of mothballs because he hasn’t had to, and not solely due to quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing out the “run the table” line when this team was at its lowest point.
The mentality is embodied in the way McCarthy has coached this team, and while he joked this week how much he loved having to “scratch and claw” since Thanksgiving to stay alive, the how they got here does matter.
“I don’t think there’s any regrets with where we’re at right now, having won seven in a row and having a lot of confidence and momentum,” Matthews said. “It’s really propelled us, being in a playoff-like atmosphere for the past several weeks.”
As mentioned in this space last week, with so much on the line every game of late, the Packers are overcoming rough moments they didn’t earlier in the season, and they’re mentally tougher as a result.
The 99-yard kickoff-return TD and 75-yard TD run to start the Indy and Tennessee games, respectively, produced snowball effects. A 6-0 hole and five straight punts to begin last week’s wild-card game against the Giants did not, and that difference in the Packers then and now means everything.
“It came from inside everybody’s chest I think,” Rodgers said. “Those are things you can’t measure, but the adversity reveals character. It was advancing this year and coming to fruition. I think it’s built on that adversity and us pushing through it and finally finding that mental toughness in the midst of some tough times during the season.
“So I’m really proud of the guys. They stepped up. The young guys really grew up, and the veterans started giving more of themselves and leading in a way that inspired guys to raise their level of play.”
The Packers will need all the mental toughness they can muster on Sunday, playing without Nelson in a monstrous venue filled with rabid fans dying for the Cowboys’ first berth in the NFC title game in 21 years.
Rodgers talked this week about withstanding Dallas’ counter to any surge Green Bay produces. The ebb and flow in a high-stakes, noisy environment is inevitable, as it was last week when the Packers trailed for 18 minutes, 24 seconds of the contest, more than twice as much time as they’d trailed collectively (7:44) in their six-game run to close the regular season.
“We’ve shown that we can battle through adversity,” Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang said. “There’s going to be adverse moments in the game, but we just have to stick with it and stay focused on our job.”
The Packers have been tested for the past seven weeks, arguably the last 11, since Atlanta scored that touchdown with 31 seconds left that began the four-game slide.
This test is as tough as it gets, yet the Packers remain undaunted, not because of any catchy slogan, but because McCarthy’s words have become engrained in the culture, no matter what.
“You understand,” Lang said, “that we’re here for a reason.”