The Packers finished strong last year at 8-8 thanks, in part, to their veterans, but also with some help from younger players along the offensive line and at skill positions. Now, despite fielding the youngest team in the NFL, the Packers have become a serious threat to win the NFC championship this season not only because of the play of key veterans, but also because a handful on players with three or fewer years in the league who are maturing into legitimate playmakers at warp speed.
The Packers depend on guys like Brett Favre, Donald Driver, Charles Woodson, Al Harris, Ryan Pickett, Nick Barnett Aaron Kampman, Cullen Jenkins and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila to play well consistently. For the most part this season, all of the aforementioned players, the youngest of whom is Jenkins, have carried the load. But now others younger players like Greg Jennings, A.J. Hawk, Corey Williams, Ryan Grant, Mason Crosby and Jon Ryan are chiming in with some major, game-turning plays, like in road wins over Denver and Kansas City in the past two weeks. Jennings, Hawk and Williams had their moments last year, but this year they are all much more consistent. They are all that much more in tune with the veterans.
Favre mentioned after the game on Sunday and McCarthy said today that "anticipation" is more of a factor. Favre anticipated that Jennings was going to be where he was to catch the 60-yard touchdown pass, just like he did with Driver on his 44-yard reception earlier in the game. That anticipation and trust factor between Favre and his receivers can be dangerous.
As a result the Packers are flying high atop the NFC North Division with a 7-1 record and tied with the Dallas Cowboys for the best mark in the NFC.
Most fans and experts in the football world still don't want to believe in the Packers, but they should think twice about it. With each victory, the Packers have become that much more confident, especially the younger players. It has become obvious that they believe in themselves, and truly believe that they can win any game at any time. That's the same kind of attitude the 1996 Packers possessed, and that team, which was loaded with veterans, lost back-to-back road games at Kansas City and the following week at Dallas. Of course, it went on to win Super Bowl XXXI.
The Packers are doing just enough to win games, coming up with key plays at key moments. Woodson and Hawk's interceptions were huge in a see-saw battle against the Chiefs. Favre continued his stellar season with a 60-yard bomb to Jennings to take the lead for good.
Mike McCarthy has the team believing in itself, and believing in his scheme. The penalties and mistakes that the Packers have been able to overcome in recent weeks and this season are serving as learning tools and probably keeping many of the veterans and younger players humble.
"The way they fight, the confidence, the toughness," McCarthy said about his team after Green Bay's 33-22 win over Kansas City. "We talk about it all the time - being smart, tough, fundamentally sound. We could play a little smarter at times. I think we've clearly established ourselves as a tough football team, and the fundamentally sound part is one of the areas I referred to that we need to continue to work at that. Smart, tough, fundamentally sound - I think when you accomplish the style of football you're trying to emulate, that's when you win football games. I think that's the point we've hit in our season."
I wrote last week after Green Bay's win in Denver, and I'll write it again this week: These Packers are for real. They certainly can compete with any NFC team, and just might give the New England Patriots or Indianapolis Colts a good game in the playoffs. Who knows? But who would have guessed the Packers would be 7-1 at the midway point?
The increased productivity from Green Bay's younger players and consistency from its core of veterans are making it all possible.
Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.