Last season, the Green Bay Packers won 13 games in the regular season and another in the playoffs before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions in the playoffs. The Jacksonville Jaguars, meanwhile, won 11 games in the regular season and another in the playoffs before losing to the eventual AFC champions in the playoffs.
High expectations followed both teams into this season. Instead, the Packers and Jaguars are among the NFL's biggest disappointments.
So, when the Packers visit Jacksonville on Sunday, pride — not playoff positioning — will be the only thing at stake.
"It's time to fight, and I'm not talking about when a guy is blocking late after the whistle," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's time to fight our way out of this hole that we created. We're in this position for a reason, and it's time to fight in every aspect of our play. We need to make sure we fight through answering these types of questions and don't be pulled down. Fight through adversity that's going to happen Sunday like it does every week, and I fully expect us to fight our way out of this position with a win this week."
Similarly, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio expected his players to battle rather than look ahead to vacation.
"This is the kind (of challenge) I don't want to see very often," Del Rio told reporters in Green Bay via a conference call. "We're professionals. We look forward to the opportunity to compete. We work so hard year-round at this job. Offseason will get here soon enough. We're going to cherish these opportunities that we get to go out and compete."
The Jaguars are 4-9. They're 1-5 in their last six games, and that win was over lowly Detroit. The Packers are 5-8 and also have lost five of their last six games. But at least Green Bay has the good fortune of residing in the NFC North, where the playoffs — while remote — remain a possibility. Not that any of that is on Aaron Kampman's mind.
"It's not even about the postseason," Kampman said. "It's about us trying to get back. It's important to be a Green Bay Packer. Get ourselves back on a winning track, just for ourselves. That's what we'll try to do against Jacksonville."
While the season has gone poorly for the Packers, a few players are having big seasons. Receiver Greg Jennings, for instance, ranks fourth in the NFL with 1,131 receiving yards and is on track for his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
"It's tough to sit here and talk about what I've done individually," Jennings said. "It's almost irrelevant to talk about it, really. Yeah, it's great, but at the same time, it would feel a lot better if we would have a winning year. We can end up 8-8, but in my mind and everyone else's mind, that's underachieving."
At this point in the season, pride is the overriding factor. It's up to the players to make these final games meaningful.
"I would hate to be embarrassing myself on the field, not being prepared or not being motivated," Jaguars quarterback David Garrard said in his conference call. "That's a little bit of pride in me. I don't want to look bad."
"Reminding them that you never get too high and too low," Kampman said of what he's telling the young players. "You try to show them what it looks like to be a professional. That's all you can do. We had a great practice today."
"It's up to leaders to keep guys motivated," Garrard said.
The coaches face the same challenge. In 2006, McCarthy's first season, the Packers won their final four games to salvage a .500 season out of a 4-8 start. McCarthy has said that four-game span was a springboard to the Packers going 13-3 last season. Similarly, a lousy finish to a season has to have a carryover effect.
"I just go by what happened today. They practiced hard again," McCarthy said. "Our tempo was in the plus category like it has been all year, and that is the job of the coaches. We need to hold them accountable to make sure the work is done right. We don't have an effort problem, never have, don't foresee it being here. Ask our opponents. It's getting a little old hearing the opposing coaches compliment your football team when you are on the losing side of it. I'm not concerned about effort. Our guys play hard."
Del Rio, meanwhile, said he has worked to create an environment strong enough to overcome trying times.
"Ultimately, in the end," Del Rio said, "the one constant that remains is my desire to create an atmosphere where players and coaches come to work every day stimulated to get better. I work hard at that and believe we have that."
Playoffs or no playoffs, there's plenty to play for and plenty of reason to play hard, Kampman said.
"We'll keep fighting as long as they let us keep playing," he said.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Underachievers play for pride, not playoffs
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