GREEN BAY, Wis. – Anyone who spent any time in the Green Bay Packers’ locker room on Tuesday might have confused it for the day before Thanksgiving, not Christmas Eve.
For the players, from one end of the room to the other, couldn’t help but feeling thankful that they’re still alive for a playoff berth.
“I think it’s just simply that it comes down to Week 17, and I think if you ask all 32 teams at the beginning of the year that if they had the opportunity in the last game to play for a division title, would they take it?” Packers fullback John Kuhn said. “Everybody would say, ‘Yes.’ That’s the spot where we are.”
It was a different vibe two days earlier, when the Packers were sullen after their 38-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. They left that very same locker room worried that their season was over. And it would have been had the Chicago Bears beaten the Philadelphia Eagles later that night. But it wasn’t even close. The Eagles throttled the Bears 54-11, setting up Sunday’s Bears-Packers game as the NFC North championship.
It’s hard to call the Packers a lucky team this season. Not with 16 players on injured reserve. Not with their MVP quarterback sidelined since Nov. 4 with a broken collarbone. Not with their premier defensive player out for the second time with a broken thumb.
What’s lucky about any of that?
But luck – if you even believe in those sort of abstract forces – has a way of balancing itself out.
Maybe that’s the only way to explain how, despite all that has gone against them this season, their playoff hopes are in no one else’s hands but their own. Or maybe the NFC North is just that mediocre.
How else to explain how the Packers (7-7-1) can beat the Bears (8-7) on Soldier Field and win the division?
“All the scenarios that could’ve happened – us being 7-7-1 and having an opportunity to win the division and host a home playoff game, we’re truly blessed,” receiver James Jones said.
Jones was then asked if the Packers were the luckiest unlucky team in football.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that,” Jones said. “Injury-wise, we’ve been beat up. But, hey, we’ve still got a shot. You can’t ask for anything better. A championship game in Chicago, a rivalry game. There’s nothing tricky. They know you, you know them. Let’s go play.”
From a practical standpoint, however, concerns remain. It won’t be known until Thursday if quarterback Aaron Rodgers will make his long-awaited return from his broken collarbone or if receiver Randall Cobb might be activated off the temporary injured reserve list.
And the Packers aren’t getting any of their other 15 players on injured reserve back this season. They don’t expect to have four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, who reinjured his broken thumb against the Steelers. Matthews missed four games after he broke it the first time on Oct. 6.
Given all that, are the Packers’ buying coach Mike McCarthy’s message that they’re just getting started?
“Yeah, we buy everything our coach says,” Jones said. “It’s one game, yeah, one game. One-game season. If you lose, you go home. It’s our playoff game, our championship game. We’ve got to win to move on. We have one game.”
In some ways, it is reminiscent to the 2010 season, when the Packers needed a Week 17 win over the Bears to get into the playoffs as a wild-card team. That team, of course, went on to win Super Bowl XLV.
“We’ve got a chance to go out and make history again,” Packers linebacker Mike Neal said. “If you look at it, it’s kind of a repeat of 2010. We needed this one to get into the playoffs. If history repeats itself, it serves us well.”