GREEN BAY—The vibe in the Packers locker room immediately following Sunday’s last-second loss to the Steelers was that the season had been squandered.
It didn’t last long, though.
A little more than three hours later, the last of what has seemed like the Packers’ nine lives was granted, thanks to the Eagles beating the Bears. When the players returned to the locker room on Monday and Tuesday, the vibe had shifted, almost immeasurably.
“I think if you ask all 32 teams at the beginning of the year if they had the opportunity in the last game to play for a division title, would they take it? Everybody would say yes,” fullback John Kuhn said. “We’re thankful to be in the spot we are. We’re looking to put our best game of the year out there.”
Might that best game of the year come with quarterback Aaron Rodgers back under center? Is that part of the changing vibe, too?
“I don’t know,” receiver James Jones said. “I think we will get some good news, but I don’t know.”
That news is expected to come on Thursday, when the players return from taking Christmas off and get back on the practice field.
Rodgers or no Rodgers, the Packers will focus plenty on their ground game as they go up against the Bears’ porous run defense. Chicago’s defense ranks last in the league in yards per game (161.5) and yards per carry (5.4).
Running back Eddie Lacy’s ankle injury could limit his playing time and/or effectiveness, but to a man the Packers have just as much confidence in James Starks. Coming off the bench last Sunday when Lacy exited due to his ankle, Starks ran 10 times for 47 yards and gained 23 more on a screen pass.
“He’s just as much of a bruiser as Eddie,” center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. “I know it doesn’t really look like it, but everyone saw the play in the Washington game when he knocked that safety out. It’s not like James can’t run behind his pads.”
For the season, Starks is averaging 5.2 yards per rush (78 carries, 405 yards) and has three touchdowns. Plagued by injuries throughout the first three years of his career, Starks is as fresh as any running back getting regular work could be this late in a season.
He has spelled Lacy and taken at least a few carries in nine straight games. His 10 attempts last Sunday were his most since Weeks 2-3, when Lacy was out with a concussion and Starks compiled 34 rushes for 187 yards (5.5 avg.).
“I’m feeling good,” Starks said. “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
The Bears hadn’t been drilled in a long time like they were Sunday night in Philadelphia, 54-11. But the Packers know better than to take Chicago’s defense for granted.
A division rivalry with such high stakes makes last week’s results even more meaningless than they usually are in the topsy-turvy world of the NFL.
“I hope we put up 54, but when you’re talking about division games, we play each other so much, they know us, it’s dang near like they practice against us,” Jones said. “These games are always close, as you guys know. Division opponents always play each other tough. Hopefully, we can expose them, but we’re ready for a dogfight.”
One more fight, for a chance to keep on fighting.
“Confidence in sky high,” Jones said. “After all we’ve been through during the season … one game … that’s all that matters.”