MADISON, Wis. -- As impressive as the Green Bay Packers’ “run-the-table” run to the NFC Championship Game was last season -- a feat celebrated during the sixth annual Wisconsin Sports Awards on Thursday night on the University of Wisconsin campus -- the team is aiming for something greater to celebrate next season: A Super Bowl title.
For that to happen, quarterback Aaron Rodgers says the Packers must do something they failed to do on Jan. 22 when they were run out of the Georgia Dome in a season-ending 44-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
“Going forward, we have to be better when our best is needed. All around -- offense, defense, special teams,” Rodgers said, standing outside Camp Randall Stadium after the awards ceremony before heading back to Green Bay, where the Packers start full-squad organized team activity practices later this month.
“There are plays in that Atlanta game that, if they go our way, it’s a different ballgame. We missed a kick, we fumbled, we go stagnant on offense and the next thing you know, it’s 31-0. You’re not going to win games like that against good teams.
“I think we’ve rebuilt a little bit, but we’ve got to see what we’ve got here.”
Rodgers said he didn’t want to minimize what his team did in rebounding from its 4-6 start and four-game midseason losing streak. That turnaround earned the Packers the award for “Team of the Year” during Thursday night’s event, which was held inside the UW Fieldhouse.
“I think we battled adversity really well. When everyone counted us out, that’s really when we kicked it into high gear. And to do what we did is awesome,” said veteran left tackle David Bakhtiari, who also attended the event. “But at the end of the day, we’re still the Green Bay Packers, and we’re here to win championships, not get close to them. That’s where I say we’ve got to be better. But to come from where we came from, there’s not too many stories that happen like that.”
Leading the Packers’ turnaround, of course, was Rodgers, who famously pronounced on Nov. 23 that he believed his team could “run the table” in the season’s final six games. While Rodgers later clarified that the statement wasn’t a prediction per se, he nevertheless proved prescient, as the Packers won six straight to end the regular season and back-to-back playoff games against the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys before losing to the Falcons.
Rodgers did more than talk a good game, however. The two-time NFL MVP delivered one of the best stretches of his career, completing 195 of 283 passes (68.9 percent) for 2,384 yards with 21 touchdowns and only one interception (117.9 rating) during the Packers’ eight-game winning streak before their season-ending loss on Jan. 22.
And while rallying from the poor start certainly qualified as an accomplishment for the team, it also wasn’t enough, Rodgers said.
“We ran the table. We won the last six to get into the playoffs,” said Rodgers, who received the “Athlete of the Year” award Thursday night. “That was the first goal, because anything can happen when you get into the playoffs -- and it did. We were up 7-6 against the Giants and hit a Hail Mary that changed the momentum of that game. And then we were in need of two scores on the last two drives against Dallas and it happened.
“We ran into a hot team [in Atlanta] and they were better than us that day. But I’m really proud of our guys.”
The Packers advanced to their second NFC title game in three years by beating the Cowboys on a 51-yard field goal by kicker Mason Crosby with 35 seconds to play -- a kick set up by Rodgers’ 35-yard sideline strike to tight end Jared Cook on third-and-20 the play before.
But after the loss to the Falcons, Rodgers spoke out, saying after the game that the team needed to go all-in. “I don’t think we need to rebuild. We need to reload," he said.
On Thursday night, Rodgers said he was pleased with the veteran free-agent additions of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois, cornerback Davon House and guard Jahri Evans. But he remained disappointed that the Packers let go of three veteran leaders he believes were vital: Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang, veteran pass-rusher Julius Peppers and safety Micah Hyde.
“I’d like to reserve judgment when we’re in shirts and shorts, but [the new players] look the part,” Rodgers said of what he’s seen in offseason workouts. “I’ve worked out with Lance [in California]; he’s a fantastic guy and he brings a different dimension to us. Martellus and I -- Marty and I -- have gotten to be good friends. I enjoy his personality and his attitude and his focus -- just kind of his whole persona. He’s a very interesting human being and a really good guy to be around and have fun conversations with. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him. And Jahri brings some veteran leadership and some clout to that huddle and the locker room.
“The tough part is, as you get older in this league and you see guys leave -- and you have to ask why, a lot. It’s tough to lose veteran leadership -- Julius, T.J., Micah, John Kuhn last year. We’ve replaced them -- but the leadership part is tough, and I think that’s an undervalued part of our league that we need guys to step up.
“I’m proud of [Pro Bowl safety] Ha Ha [Clinton-Dix], because I think he’s really stepped up and can be one of those guys. … But the exciting thing is, you don’t know. You’re not sure what’s going to happen.”
Editor’s note: Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPN Wisconsin and hosts “Wilde & Tausch” with former Packers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher, weekdays on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison.