And there is a familiar regular-season record and result – 12 wins against just four losses, NFC North Champions for the fourth straight season and playoffs for the sixth straight season.
At the core of the personality of the 2014 Green Bay Packers, however, is a sense of changing past perceptions. While their leader’s “R-E-L-A-X” comment on a weekly radio show after a 1-2 start to the season provides a fruitful narrative, this Packers team has a stronger vibe to it headed into the NFC divisional round of the playoffs.
“It’s a different team. Every year is different,” said Rodgers. “This group seems to be a little hungrier. We’re a few years now removed from the Super Bowl and there’s a lot of guys who weren’t a part of that run who are big contributors for us so it’s fun to see those guys and their hunger to get there. I mean, we have the same drive as a veteran who’s been there it might be even greater than the young guys who don’t really realize how special these times can be. We’re one of four remaining teams in the NFC and we’ve got a great opportunity in front of us.”
For the longest time, the Packers were mediocre at best in close games. From 2008, the first season Rodgers became the regular starter, through 2013, the Packers were just 23-26-1 (including the playoffs) in games decided by seven points or less.
In 2014, they were 5-0.
Riding on the coattails of that “close games” theme there was a school of thought – and the record to back it up – that the hole on Rodgers’ sparkling resume was his lack of fourth-quarter comebacks or comebacks of any kind for that matter. Then, coming off a broken collarbone, he led a game-winning drive for the ages at Chicago in the 2013 regular season finale and…
In 2014, he posted a career-best 18-point comeback win against the New York Jets and led a dramatic game-winning drive at Miami to beat the Dolphins by channeling his inner Dan Marino.
There was also a question over the previous couple of seasons if the Packers could be considered an elite team. Dating back to the 2011 playoff loss to the New York Giants through the 2014 season opener at Seattle, the Packers were a disconcerting 3-11 against teams that made the playoffs those seasons. Plus, against top 10 quarterbacks (based on passer rating) in that same span, they were 2-9.
Since then, they have gone 3-1 against playoff teams including what might be McCarthy’s signature regular season win against the New England Patriots. By beating Brady, they beat a future Hall of Famer and one of the best ever to play quarterback.
And how about the issue of whether the Packers were tough enough to play with the powerhouse teams of the NFL? They started to re-direct that thought thanks to a game effort with a short-handed crew in last season’s wild-card playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. But like other recent games against the 49ers and this year’s season opener at Seattle, that game ended with a loss and more doubt.
In 2014, however, the Packers closed the season by punching a bully in the mouth, beating the rival Lions to win the NFC North. Said McCarthy after that game: “I thought our physicality was superior to our opponent.”
It might not be idle talk. The signs are there that this is a different Packers team. But to get to the Super Bowl, they will have to continue to prove it on the field.
It starts this Sunday at Lambeau Field against an offense unlike any they have faced all season. The Dallas Cowboys have the league’s top-rated passer, its top rusher, its top touchdown producer at wide receiver, a future Hall of Fame tight end and a formidable offensive line. A group like that in the past would have spelled doom for the Packers defense. It would have sent them into the offseason answering questions about whether they are wasting away the best years of Rodgers’ career.
Sunday is another chance to change past perceptions. An improved defense over the second half of the season for the Packers is noteworthy, but this Cowboys offense will be it toughest test and a defining moment.
“The reality of it is when you get to this point, you are who you are,” said McCarthy. “And we like who we are.”
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