CHICAGO -- As Ryan Pickett spoke to reporters Sunday, a Green Bay Packers official walked by and handed him something. Pickett paused, glanced at what he had been given and then kept right on talking as though he had been handed a loaf of bread.
In Pickett's left hand was a green hat. It was emblazoned with a Green Bay Packers logo and read: "NFC North Champions."
"This is great," the defensive end said after the Packers clinched the division title with a 21-13 victory over the Chicago Bears. "But now we're looking ahead. We want more. We want home-field advantage. That's our next step, and we'll go from there."
A division title, the Packers' second in as many years and the third of coach Mike McCarthy's tenure, is an accomplishment to be proud of. In the Packers' locker room, however, there was a clear sense that this team is destined for much more. The Packers have won eight of nine games since starting 2-3, and their newfound expertise in winning "ugly" has girded them for the type of competition they'll face in the NFC playoffs.
At the moment, the Packers are the conference's third seed. When you look at the Atlanta Falcons (No. 1) and the San Francisco 49ers (No. 2), do you see a team fundamentally better than the Packers? I don't, and some of the Packers' most important figures are coming around to the same conclusion. (Update: That paragraph was written before the 49ers went to Gillette Stadium and beat the New England Patriots on Sunday night. Yeesh.)
"Not to diminish anything," McCarthy said, "but we are just getting started. We feel that way as a football team. Not trying to be arrogant, [but] we feel that a lot better football is in front of us. It was an extremely important game for everybody involved today, but we fully expected to come in here and win this thing."
McCarthy's strong talk was reminiscent of his message during the Packers' run to Super Bowl XLV two years ago. The Packers' confidence was illustrated Sunday in the decision to hold out defensive back Charles Woodson because, Woodson said, "we felt like they could come down here and get a 'W' whether I played or not."
The Packers have some issues to work through, including the continued struggles of place-kicker Mason Crosby, who missed from 42 and 43 yards Sunday. McCarthy's own hubris helped the Bears keep Sunday's game close; afterward McCarthy admitted that his ill-fated decision to approve a trick play on a fourth-quarter punt return was "clearly not the highlight of my coaching career."
But as we've discussed multiple times this season, the Packers have morphed into a team that grinds out imperfectly played games. An interloper might have watched Sunday's affair and concluded the Packers aren't championship material because they couldn't put away a depleted opponent. Those of us who have watched the Packers all season know they have demonstrated their skill in manufacturing victories.
"I think guys are jelling," Woodson said. "These tough games, man, they test your team. That's when you find out what kind of team you've got. ... People respond in those situations, it makes for a good team."
As an illustration, Woodson noted how the Packers' defense tightened after the Bears gained possession at the Packers' 16-yard line following the botched fake punt return. There were just under eight minutes left to play, and the Bears were in position to draw closer in a 21-10 game.
On first down, cornerback Sam Shields knocked away a Jay Cutler pass intended for receiver Alshon Jeffery in the end zone. Next, linebacker Brad Jones stopped tailback Matt Forte for no gain. On third down, Jones had tight coverage on Forte to cause another incompletion.
Olindo Mare's 34-yard field goal made it a one-score game, but the way the Bears' offense had been struggling, it was hard to imagine them coming up with a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie the game. As it turned out, they did not cross midfield for the rest of the game.
I made the rounds in the Packers' postgame locker room, asking players who are a part of the 2010 championship team whether they were getting a similar vibe now.
"We're hitting our peak at the right time," defensive lineman B.J. Raji said.
"We're getting there," Pickett said. "We're starting to play good at the right time, and that's what it's all about. We're headed that way."
"I've definitely been on a Super Bowl team," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Do I think we are a capable Super Bowl team? No doubt about it. But I don't know yet."
We'll give Woodson the final say.
"We like where we're at this point," he said, "... but we know we can still get better, and we're going to get better."
Yes. The Packers viewed Sunday as the first step in their playoff journey. I'm having a hard time arguing with that notion.