GREEN BAY – It’s been awhile.
Awhile since a regular-season game felt this critical to the Packers. Sunday’s Green Bay-Seattle tilt at Lambeau Field has a lot attached to it.
Given the landscape in Week 14 – a two-game deficit in the NFC North with only four games to go, and an eight-year streak of playoff appearances in the balance – it’s fair to say a December game hasn’t been this important for the Packers since probably 2013.
That year, the Packers were fighting for their playoff lives every week in the season’s final month, hoping to stay in the hunt long enough to get quarterback Aaron Rodgers back from a broken collarbone.
Dramatic comeback wins over the Falcons and Cowboys got the job done, leading to the winner-takes-the-division showdown in Chicago with Rodgers back under center.
December games haven’t felt as dire around here since then.
Sure, there were Week 17 NFC North-deciding contests the last two seasons against the Lions (in 2014) and Vikings (in 2015), but the Packers were already in the playoffs regardless of those outcomes. Yes, there were high stakes – and the No. 2 seed and first-round bye the Packers earned two years ago nearly propelled them to the Super Bowl – but not like this.
It’s not the same as the ’13 finale in Chicago, either. That game was winner gets in, loser goes home. The Packers can’t earn a playoff berth with a win over Seattle on Sunday, and they won’t be eliminated with a loss, either.
But it sorta feels like it, doesn’t it?
A victory over the NFC West leaders would certainly announce the Packers as bona fide postseason contenders in 2016. It would change the narrative on this up-and-down season, crank up the pressure on Green Bay’s division rivals, and make Rodgers’ late-November “running the table” line feel less like chatter and more like prophesy.
A loss would likely throw any thoughts of a wild-card berth out the window and leave only one path to the playoffs. If the Lions hold serve at home against the last-place Bears, the Packers would be three back with three to play. Detroit would have to lose two straight, and the Packers would have to win two straight, before their Week 17 meeting at Ford Field. There might not be any other way.
Far more options remain on the table with a win. More important, the Packers would have loads of momentum heading into their NFC North gauntlet over the final three games – at Chicago, home vs. Minnesota on Christmas Eve, then at Detroit on New Year’s Day.
“These are the kind of games you live for this time of year,” Rodgers said this week. “You’re playing for something that matters.
“We need a little help moving forward, but we can’t worry about that. We just have to put ourselves in position to be there at the end.”
The Seahawks are trying to do the same. There’s less at stake for them here as there is for the Packers, with Seattle leading their division by three games with four to play, but they do have their eye on a possible playoff bye.
Needing to beat the Seahawks to, potentially, save the season is probably how it should be for the Packers. Seattle is currently Green Bay’s biggest non-division rival. It was San Francisco a few years ago, but the “Fail Mary” followed by the start and finish to 2014 changed it to these guys.
“I think it fits,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said of calling Green Bay-Seattle a rivalry. “You’ve got two teams that have played big games against one another. I don’t think you have to go past that.”
The Seahawks’ visit to Lambeau last year in Week 2 was memorable for the atmosphere. Green Bay’s home crowd was intense, the conference title game from eight months prior still fresh.
This time it’s borderline desperation rather than revenge, but the crowd needs to put that emotion to work for the Packers. The Seahawks expect nothing less.
“The environment, we are comfortable in the craziness, that’s what we operate in here,” Seattle head coach Pete Carroll said, referring to his team’s famous “12th man.”
“It’s always fun, though. It’s a great place to play. We’ve had great matchups over the years, so we expect nothing but full-on crowd, full-on noise, all of the energy and juice you could possibly muster when we’re playing, and we’re certainly going to get that this week.”
It’s the ultimate rise-to-the-occasion contest, for the Packers and their fans. Win big games in December to prove you belong in January? It starts Sunday in Green Bay.
“As every week progresses, there’s more on the line for us to play for, so I’m confident in the guys that we’re up to the challenge,” Rodgers said.
“It’s a big game for us and we have to be ready to go, and I think we are.”