The playoffs have started for his Green Bay Packers, even though they’ve neither clinched a playoff berth nor are in must-win mode entering Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay.
“We’re looking at this game as really the start of our playoff approach, playoff mind-set,” McCarthy said on Wednesday. “This is a road game that we have to have. We clearly understand the importance of winning in December, but we feel like we need to take it up a notch as a football team to make sure that we improve not only as a team but, most importantly, in the win column. This is a playoff-type preparation. We discussed it in the team meeting.”
Breaking from the norm and hoping to elevate the team’s preparation and play to a playoff-type standard, McCarthy had his players elect playoff captains on Monday, a day after a disappointing loss at Buffalo clouded their playoff fate. Usually, that voting isn’t conducted until the Monday after the conclusion of the regular season.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiver Jordy Nelson were selected on offense, linebacker Julius Peppers and Morgan Burnett on defense, and receiver Randall Cobb and cornerback Jarrett Bush on special teams.
“I felt the need to give these men the chance to stand up front and take the responsibility that their teammates have placed upon them,” McCarthy said. “That’s the way we’re approaching them. It’s time to ramp it up and make sure we’re playing our best football this time of year.”
Of course, the Packers won’t need playoff captains if they don’t play better than they did in a 21-13 loss at Buffalo. If Green Bay wins at Tampa Bay and either Philadelphia loses to Washington or Dallas beats Indianapolis, the Packers will clinch a playoff berth. Beat Tampa Bay and then Detroit, which is tied with Green Bay for the NFC North lead, and the Packers will earn the division title and a coveted first-round playoff bye.
The Packers, who entered last week with the most points scored and fewest giveaways in the league, managed only one touchdown while turning over the ball twice against the Bills. Offensively, rebounding starts with Rodgers, who had what statistically was the worst game of his career. Moreover, the Packers dropped six passes after entering the game with only 17 for the season, according to STATS. The receivers didn’t do any more ball drills than usual, Nelson said, and the only recourse was to “move on” to this week’s game.
“The focus level and guys working hard and trying to continue to improve (are the keys),” said Nelson, who dropped what might have been a 94-yard touchdown that could have changed the fortunes against Buffalo. “Even though it’s late in the year, you can’t start settling for where you’re at, and there’s always areas to improve each and every week, whether it’s individually or as an offense. I think we’ve got professional guys in here that take a lot of pride in our work, whether it’s in practice or if it’s in a game.”
That pride has shown up this season. After the Packers’ three losses, they’ve bounced back to win by an average of 23.0 points. With a healthy Rodgers, the Packers haven’t dropped back-to-back games since October 2010. That starts with the leadership, McCarthy said, which is why he decided to elect playoff captains now rather than waiting a couple weeks. He’s looking toward his leaders to propel the team’s final push.
“It’s an honor -- probably one of the higher honors you can get is when guys on your team look at you in that way,” Nelson said. “But there’s also a responsibility and pressure with it, so I take that very personal and look to be a leader for this team and hopefully guide us on a playoff run.”
Peppers takes the responsibility seriously, as well. Peppers, who was signed during the offseason, has evolved into more than just a quiet leader. As the season has progressed, he has embraced the opportunity to speak his mind to a roster filled with players who are eight, 10 or 12 years younger.
“His personality was quiet when he first got in here,” McCarthy said, “and now look where he is. He’s in front of the room. I think it says a lot about Julius.”
Rodgers joked that he hopes Peppers takes on the role of the team’s “rah-rah” leader. Don’t count on that happening. But Peppers’ voice has become a powerful addition to what is usually one of the youngest teams in the league.
“It’s that time of the year. It’s the playoff time of the year,” Peppers said. “So, yeah, if you want to say it’s that time to turn it up, then you can say that. It’s an honor to be voted by your teammates. Any time you’re voted captain, you’ve got to accept that responsibility and step up and be a leader.”
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