After suffering their worst regular-season loss together in four seasons, not to mention two losses to the Brett Favre-led Vikings before that, the playoffs were beginning to look like a pipe dream. And beating a good team? Ditto.
After Sunday, there is hope.
With a 17-7 victory over the red-hot Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field, the Packers put themselves in the middle of the NFC wild-card race, and for a week at least, doused the water-cooler talk of firings and major changes in Green Bay.
At 5-4, the Packers stand three games behind the Vikings in the NFC North, but are tied with the Eagles and Falcons, both of which lost on Sunday, and the Giants (bye), for the No. 5 spot in the NFC.
"It was a big win for us, definitely," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We knew (being) 4-4 (and) playing a very good team it was an important time in our season to get back in the race. I think a lot of people were thinking this was going to be the end of the road for us and going to be a turning point for the negative for us this season. But it was a big win for our team."
Mettle more than anything won this game for a Packers team picked by many as an NFC contender at the beginning of the season. The week started with a team meeting on Monday in which Rodgers and wide receiver Donald Driver, among others, spoke up after an unspeakable 38-28 loss to the winless Buccaneers. The message, which included Driver telling everyone their jobs could be on the line, seemed to carry through.
"We had a good meeting on Monday," Rodgers said. "The resolve of the team, I think, was tested and I think we proved some stuff not only to our fans, but to ourselves and the rest of the league. A lot of people were thinking this was definitely going to be a Cowboy roll today, and our defense played great and our offense did just enough."
While the chatter created a sense of urgency during the week, it failed to translate early on Sunday. Halfway into the second quarter of a scoreless game, the boo birds at Lambeau reigned down like No. 4 in a purple jersey had just walked through the visiting tunnel. It made no difference to the home folks that the Packers were hanging in against an NFC division leader on a four-game winning streak, because the same old problems were popping up.
There was a special teams letdown. Mason Crosby missed a 52-yard field goal in the first quarter.
The pass protection was again a problem. By game's end, the Cowboys finished with four sacks and four quarterback hits.
And, oh, the penalties. Flag day at Lambeau Field included 12 of the game's 22 infractions against the Packers.
The same old story seemed to being playing out for the Packers as everyone took notice … until a second-half gut-check helped save the Packers' season.
Leading 3-0 in a defensive struggle, the Packers pushed aside their offensive ineptitude and put together their best drive of the season. Rodgers converted two long third downs — one to receiver Greg Jennings and one to tight end Donald Lee — with laser beam throws to keep the drive alive. Ryan Grant carried four times for good measure. And two Cowboys penalties gave the Packers first downs.
When the drive ended with a 1-yard sneak by Rodgers, the Packers had put together their longest scoring drive of the year (15 plays), covering 80 yards in 8:36. The Packers led 10-0 at the 13:14 mark of the fourth quarter, infusing life into a game, a crowd and a team that desperately needed it.
"I thought we got great rhythm," guard Daryn Colledge said of the drive. "But I think the fact of the matter is we just kept pushing. You can eventually wear a defense down, it's just a matter of great conditioning, and the guys weren't willing to give up. We converted some long third downs, guys made plays when they had to, and that's the plays we weren't making in the first eight games. We let games slip away, and not because we gave up but because we just didn't make the plays when we just had to have it. Tonight, nobody was going to give up."
From there, it was all downhill for the Packers and a defense that kept Tony Romo and Co. out of the end zone until 38 seconds were remaining in the game. For the first time all season, the unit showed championship qualities for 60 minutes against one of the league's most explosive offenses.
Simply put, the Packers' defense dug deep to flat-out win the game when they got the chance. While the Packers' offense wallowed in its own misery, the defense was getting off the field (the Cowboys were just 3-of-12 on third down). Cornerback Charles Woodson was a one-man wrecking crew with nine tackles, two forced fumbles, one sack and one interception. Linebacker Nick Barnett added eight tackles, two sacks and two quarterback hits looking more confident off his ACL knee surgery than ever.
The efforts of Woodson, Barnett and the Packers' pass rush had Romo sounding more like his counterpart, Rodgers, who far too often this season has been on his back side.
"Their defense is good," Romo said. "They have a good scheme. I don't know why we made so many mistakes, but you have to give credit to Green Bay. We are all going to look at ourselves and learn from the negatives today and we will use it to improve. It is disappointing that it takes a loss in a tough game like this to have that happen."
NFC East leaders at 6-2 coming into the game, the Cowboys became the biggest regular season victory, if not the biggest breather, ever for McCarthy. Only once has the fourth-year coach — or Thompson (in his fifth year as general mnager) for that matter — beaten a team with a better record entering a game.
The Packers beat the 13-2 Bears in Chicago to end the 2006 season, but that was essentially a meaningless game for the Bears, who had wrapped up home-field advantage and played many of their backups in preparation for the playoffs.
Other than that, McCarthy has beaten only four teams (in 56 games) with winning records. The last time he did it before Sunday was a win against the 3-2 Colts last season. After that win, the Packers finished the season 2-7. This time, they are hoping the results are much different.
"Well, it was important for us to get back on track. You know, especially after the past two weeks," said McCarthy.
"It's a good win versus a very good football team, a football team that has been playing very well. So, it definitely gives us a big nugget of confidence that we can grab onto."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org