Both combatants in any given playoff meeting are there for a reason. They’re capable of making big plays, and stopping their opponents from doing the same. Playoff games, in and of themselves, are often roller-coaster rides for this reason. The Packers and their fans certainly know this, having seen their team play four overtime games in their last six postseason contests, dating back to the 2003 season.
Given that context, two veteran Packers this past Sunday provided an example for all their teammates to keep in mind as the playoffs commence this weekend.
Receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings didn’t have their best days against the Bears in a playoff-like game the Packers needed to win to secure a Wild Card berth. They both made crucial, visible mistakes.
But neither player let the gaffes get to him, and they both bounced back with major contributions befitting the resolve they possess as seasoned pros.
“Big-time players step up in big-time games,” safety Charlie Peprah said. “I like to say the stars come out at night, and that’s what happened.”
Not right away, though.
On the Packers’ second drive of the game, they faced second-and-10 from the Chicago 43-yard line. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers hit Driver with a short throw, and Driver tried to spin away from cornerback D.J. Moore to fight for the first down.
But Moore knocked the ball out of Driver’s hands at the 35, and cornerback Charles Tillman recovered for the Bears. Instead of potentially taking the early lead, the Packers were turned away.
Then with the Packers running the two-minute drill at the end of the first half, Jennings was open on a slant route and failed to haul in a low throw from Rodgers. Not an easy catch, but one Green Bay’s go-to receiver has made many times.
Moments later, with the Packers at midfield, Jennings got behind the defense down the left side of the field as Rodgers’ perfect over-the-shoulder throw approached. Only it clanged off Jennings’ hands instead of being a potential 50-yard touchdown, and the Packers ultimately went into the locker room at halftime trailing, 3-0.
With the season in the balance, it wasn’t an enjoyable sit-down at the half. But by the time Driver and Jennings emerged from the locker room to start the second half, their focus was not on their mistakes. They weren’t thinking about what they didn’t accomplish in the first half, only what they could accomplish in the second, and there’s a big difference.
“Obviously we had a few letdowns in the first half, all of us, myself included, and I’m the biggest critic of myself,” Jennings said. “Come the second half, we knew we needed to make plays to make sure we got a playoff berth and that was the only thing on our mind.”
Jennings thought he had made one of those plays in the first half, too, hauling in a 33-yard pass from a scrambling Rodgers to put the Packers in scoring territory. But that was nullified by a questionable holding call on rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga, only adding to the early frustrations.
The bottom line, however, is that both veteran receivers rebounded in a meaningful way.
In the third quarter, Jennings drew a pass interference call on Bears cornerback Tim Jennings for a quick first down. Then on the very next snap, he beautifully split Chicago’s zone defense on an in route for 33 yards to set up first-and-goal and an eventual tying field goal.
Then on the Packers’ next drive, early in the fourth quarter, Driver was the target on a crucial third-and-3 from the Green Bay 32. Rather than worry about any additional yards, he secured the catch falling to the ground for a 21-yard gain across midfield. On the next snap, Jennings got free down the right sideline, and a well-executed play-action fake allowed Rodgers to hit him in stride for a 46-yard gain down to the 1.
The consecutive big strikes set up the game’s lone touchdown, a 1-yard toss to tight end Donald Lee, and the Packers had the lead for good.
Driver and Jennings had done their jobs, without trying to do too much, regardless of what had happened earlier.
“I didn’t put it on my shoulders,” Jennings said. “I just got some opportunities, and I made plays when I got those opportunities in the second half.”
That’s an important lesson to take into the postseason, even if the last two games have been the equivalent of the playoffs for this team.
“We’re going to have some adversity Sunday in Philadelphia in all three phases,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “So we’re going to have to answer the bell and keep fighting.”