GREEN BAY – For as smooth a ride as the Packers had been on offensively, it got a little rocky last week in Detroit.
The fact that Green Bay still put up 31 points that night says a couple of things, though, with the playoffs now upon us.
For one, imagine what Aaron Rodgers and Co. might have been capable of in a playoff-type game if not for an abnormal number of mistakes compared to the bulk of the winning streak. Those errors included a missed blitz pickup and wrong-way release on a screen pass early in the game, plus seven offensive penalties and two others that were declined.
But two, the end result of 31 points in a tough road environment showed what the Packers are now able to overcome when earlier in the season their margin for error was considerably thinner.
“I think we’re definitely more explosive than midseason,” Rodgers said this week in the lead-up to Sunday’s NFC Wild Card game against the Giants at Lambeau Field. There’s more to it, though.
The cast of characters around Rodgers has gained some consistency at the same time a go-to guy in Jordy Nelson has returned to his old self. Players like Ty Montgomery, Aaron Ripkowski and Jared Cook are no longer occasional contributors, in and out of the lineup, but mainstays for the stretch run.
“Midseason, we didn’t have Christine Michael, Ty was not getting any carries, ‘Rip’ was not playing a whole lot, and Jared was out,” Rodgers said. “Look at our offense now. We’re just a completely different offense.”
With Rodgers playing at such a high level, posting a 122.0 passer rating since the calendar turned to December to earn NFC Offensive Player of the Month honors, the offense is also showing it can rise above mistakes or rough patches, rather than be doomed by them.
Back in Week 2 at Minnesota, a holding penalty on second-and-1 killed a drive. A first-down sack preceded a turnover on another. Against Indianapolis, a holding penalty on a promising drive was followed by a sack and interception.
The list from the first 10 games of the season goes on and on. Miscues weren’t shaken off, they compounded.
The performance at Ford Field a week ago was so different. Everything wasn’t clicking like it was for much of the recent Seattle and Minnesota victories, but the offense pushed through its own troubles and still got the results needed. The previous road game, in Chicago, two consecutive three-and-outs in the fourth quarter didn’t preclude the 60-yard Rodgers-to-Nelson bomb the Packers had to have to pull out the win.
“Just keeping a positive mindset,” Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang said of how that’s done. “If somebody messes up, 10 other guys pick him up and they go out there and convert. The one particular penalty I had (in Detroit) with the block in the back set us back to first-and-15 or first-and-20. The next play, Geronimo (Allison) catches a long pass down the sideline.
“It just says a lot about overcoming the adversity, which is a great characteristic we have right now.”
The same is going on defensively with the injuries and position shuffling. Some players are banged-up and playing through it, others are taking on new roles.
It’s all forged a mentally strong team. Remember after the Colts loss when Rodgers said “we need to be mentally tougher” and not let an opening kickoff-return TD affect the sideline for the whole game? The Packers are mentally tougher now.
The shift started with Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who did not browbeat his players after the fourth straight loss in Washington when the heat was hottest. Instead, he stayed supportive, believing that once his team turned the corner, it might not look back.
“I think if anything after the Washington game, he became even more of a players’ coach,” Rodgers said. “He was even more positive and listened even more, and just kept encouraging us that we were close to kind of getting over the hump and starting to win games.
“He took some crap from everybody, but he stayed the course for us in the meeting rooms and in the locker room.”
Six straight wins later, the Packers are where they thought they’d be all along, even if they didn’t get there in conventional fashion.
“First and foremost, this is a different season, no doubt about it, once you hit the playoffs,” Lang said. “But you can’t ignore the confidence we’ve built the last six weeks, you can’t ignore the momentum we’ve stacked week after week.”
The question has been asked all week if the momentum really matters. When a team has found a way to succeed in overcoming mistakes, battling through injuries, and forged a mental toughness as a result, it would seem to matter a great deal.
“It does in here,” Rodgers said referring to the locker room. “It does a lot in here, because guys have confidence, and there’s an expectation you’re going to win, where before, it was a hope. You just kind of hope you’re in the game in the fourth quarter and you can pull it out.
“During that rough stretch where you’re kind of up and down, every game riding the roller coaster, … now, there’s an expectation when we take the field that we’re going to come away with a ‘W.’”