That’s heady praise coming from someone who coached two of Brett Favre’s 4,000-yard seasons (1999, 2007) for the Packers.
So as this team prepares to make a playoff push in a crowded NFC race over the final month of the regular season, the Packers can be confident knowing they have a quarterback playing as well as he ever has during his three-year stint as the starter.
But at the same time, as last Sunday’s tough three-point loss as well as the trio of other three-point losses this season illustrate, the Packers can’t lose sight of – call them what you will – the little things, the fundamentals, and all those not-so-glamorous elements that often serve as the difference between winning and losing in the NFL.
“The little things turn into big things, and the little things turn into real big things when you get into December football,” McCarthy said. “We just need to fine-detail our work. We’ve done a lot of positive things as a football team, but it’s the little things that have caught us in the four losses.”
McCarthy was referring to fundamentals like blocking, tackling, protecting the ball, and taking it away when you can. Maybe toss short-yardage execution and penalties into that mix, too.
But backing up for a second, one of the building blocks of a successful NFL team is strong quarterback play, and the Packers are no doubt getting that from Rodgers.
Over his last three games, Rodgers has completed better than 70 percent of his passes each contest, thrown eight touchdown passes with no interceptions, and posted QB ratings of 131.5 (vs. Dallas), 141.3 (at Minnesota) and 114.5 (at Atlanta). He has now thrown 147 passes without an interception, just 12 passes shy of the longest streak of his career.
In addition, he’s avoiding sacks better than he did a year ago, keeping plays alive with his feet, and making teams pay for his scrambling. He has added 113 rushing yards over these past three games, the most in any three-game stretch in his career.
“I’m just trying to become a better player,” Rodgers said. “I think you realize each year how important preparation can be to success, and how consistency is the most important thing in this league.”
Even though the Packers didn’t win the game in Atlanta, the 16-play, 90-yard touchdown drive to tie the contest was probably the team’s most impressive drive of the season. The offense overcame two penalties and Rodgers converted two fourth downs with an improvised shovel pass and a do-or-die rocket throw to Jordy Nelson for the game-tying TD.
That’s the type of drive a quarterback, and an offense, can hang their collective hat on should they get into another down-to-the-wire tussle, which almost inevitably they will over these last five regular-season games. But Rodgers points out that it’s just as important to play at that peak level at other crucial points in games, no matter when they occur, and that’s a lesson this team is taking from the Atlanta defeat.
“There’s an urgency level that is there – I think when adversity hits this team, that’s the thing I’m most proud of is we meet it head on and we’ve been able to make some plays in those situations,” Rodgers said, referring not only to last week’s game but the late, 69-yard game-tying TD drive vs. Miami in Week 6 as well.
“But I think the urgency needs to be there a little more obviously every play in the game. I told the guys before the game last week, I said it’s going to have to be a 60-minute game, and it could be a play that happens in the first, second, third or fourth quarter that wins the game or loses the game. Unfortunately I was foreshadowing a play in the second quarter that could possibly have cost us a game, but unfortunately, you never know when that play is going to be.”
Rodgers of course was referring to two botched quarterback sneaks on the goal line with the game tied at 3, the second one resulting in his own fumble. The Falcons recovered in the end zone for a touchback, drove 80 yards the other way for a touchdown before halftime, and never trailed in the game.
Rodgers also lamented the other missed opportunity near the goal line, a stuffed third-and-1 at the Atlanta 4 that forced the Packers to settle for a field goal.
“We had four trips in the red zone, we had 17 points, and we lose by three,” he said. “Those are the things that come back and hurt you, especially when you’re playing good teams.”
Meanwhile, the defense had its share of basic breakdowns too, missing some tackles that allowed the Falcons to extend drives, blowing the coverage in the end zone on a third-and-goal play right before half, and failing to prevent the Falcons from getting into field-goal range on the game’s final drive, though the defense only surrendered 20 yards in that instance.
On the plus side, the defense ranks No. 1 in the league in points allowed (15.1 per game), is tied for fifth in the league in sacks (31), and is tied for sixth in takeaways (21) despite not getting any against the Falcons. Those are worthwhile building blocks as well, but it’s the momentary lapses that can prove costly in critical, late-season games.
“One thing we have to focus on going forward is closing games out and winning the close games, because once the season winds down, it’s going to come down to those type of games,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “It’s going to get tougher and tougher, so we have to find a way to pull those games out.
“Some plays we missed out there last week, we haven’t made those mistakes in the three or four weeks previous. Going forward we have to go back to the fundamentals, the basics of what we do – tackling, blocking and those sort of things – and just get it done.”
The players acknowledge that over the final month of the season, in the playoff hunt, everything is magnified. The intensity, the big plays, the mistakes. Any moment could be that sink-or-swim one.
McCarthy’s message to the team last week, and again this week, has centered on progressing from being a good football team to being a great one. That didn’t happen in Atlanta, but if the Packers can combine their solid foundations on both sides of the ball with a keener attention to detail as the regular season reaches its climax, they’ll have an opportunity to ascend to that level.
“Mike has talked since the beginning of training camp (that) really the enemy of great is good, meaning that you don’t want to be remembered as just a good team, a team that made some plays and couldn’t take that next jump to being an elite football team,” Rodgers said.
“I saw something written about us this week that said we’re still just a good football team. Obviously that’s not something that we want to be remembered as, but we have a chance – we have five games left, and we have a chance to still accomplish all the things we set forward at the beginning of the season, and that’s our focus.”
Additional coverage – Dec. 1