According to the quarterback and unquestioned team leader, the playoffs for the Packers don’t start a week from Sunday, they start on Monday.
That’s when the players come back from a three-day break and begin preparing in earnest for their specific opponent in the divisional round. That’s when Aaron Rodgers wants to see the heightened focus and the do-or-die mentality that served the Packers so well during their historic march to the title a year ago.
“That’s what kind of separated us last year from maybe the other teams is we had to play to get in, and we kept that sense of urgency, starting with the Giants game all the way through the playoffs,” Rodgers said on Thursday after the second of two workouts before the bye weekend.
“We need to find that feeling. I don’t think we’re far off from it the way we played this season, but we need to find that feeling come Monday and during the week and get ready to make a similar run.”
The past two days on the practice field did not feature such urgency, but they weren’t intended to. Head Coach Mike McCarthy gave the two workouts – with Thursday’s in pads – a training-camp feel to them, with a lot of fundamental drills that he hopes will bring back a physical sharpness to his team’s play next week.
“Fundamentals is always a need,” McCarthy said. “You can’t spend enough time on fundamentals, and I’m sure every coach feels that way.”
One player who welcomed that type of work was right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who missed the final two regular-season games after injuring a knee in Kansas City in Week 15.
Bulaga said he could have played last week if it had been a playoff game, but resting was the “smart thing to do” and he appreciated getting some time to focus on his own game without the additional challenge of an opponent or game plan.
“Personally, I needed it, to get the pads back on, hit a little bit, knock a little bit of rust off, and kind of feel better about my technique before we go into game week,” Bulaga said.
“It felt good today to butt heads a little bit and get back into the swing of things.”
Assuming neither Bulaga nor left tackle Chad Clifton has any setbacks in the next week, the Packers are expected to start the playoffs with their season-opening offensive line. Center Scott Wells also returned to practice on Thursday after missing Wednesday’s workout.
The entire group hasn’t played together since Week 3, but there seems little doubt the continuity will return seamlessly.
“Everybody has to be used to playing next to somebody different by now,” Bulaga said. “So regardless of who’s out there, I think we’ll be ready to go.”
That’s what Rodgers is counting on with the entire offense, one of the league’s most dangerous units that will have the biggest influence on how far the Packers advance. Playoff opponents will be expected to try to control the ball and play “keep-away” from Rodgers and Co. as best they can, in order to limit the chances for a team that scored at least 35 points in nine of 16 games.
“We’re not going to get 13, 14 possessions every game,” said Rodgers, who dismissed any notion of feeling rusty himself after sitting out last week’s game. “We’ve been averaging more like nine or 10, so we need to make the most of those opportunities.
“If we can start fast, get our crowd into it, and make them be more one-dimensional on the other side of the ball, then we’re doing our job.”
McCarthy reiterated on Thursday that his message to the team of being “the hunter” and not “the hunted” took root on day one of training camp and has provided a foundation for the team’s approach all season long.
Judging from his quarterback’s comments, the message is taking hold for the playoffs, too. If not already, it will for sure on Monday.
“The focus has to go up, the urgency goes up, the preparation is more refined,” Rodgers said. “Speaking for myself, you learn exactly what you need to do to be able to balance the pressure from the outside with the pressure from within you put on yourself to be successful.
“Last year’s run, I think, is really going to help all of us.” Additional coverage - Jan. 5