As he sat in the locker room after a late-July practice, Rodgers said the Green Bay Packers would be a better team in 2012 than they were in 2011 -- when they finished the regular season 15-1. Rodgers made no prediction on a final record but said: "We're going to play better football. It might not be 15 wins, but I think we're going to be a more sound team."
We're starting to see what Rodgers was talking about. Sunday's 24-20 victory over the Detroit Lions forced the Packers to take a path they rarely traveled last season but are now on their way to mastering. In winning five consecutive games, the Packers are grinding out victories through unexpected means while slicing through substantial adversity.
The 2011 Packers knew how to score. This season, much as they did during their run to Super Bowl XLV in 2010, the Packers are showing us how to win.
"This is a mature team," Rodgers said Sunday after leading a game-winning drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. "We've won a lot of games together. In the past, these are games that we probably come up on the other side. Because of the success that we've had, and understanding what it takes to win, these games are now in the win column for us."
Sunday's victory could be attributed in equal parts to late-game heroics and a strong defensive effort that included a touchdown -- M.D. Jennings' 72-yard interception return -- and five sacks, even with linebacker Clay Matthews sidelined by a hamstring injury. But despite that effort, the Packers trailed 20-14 when Rodgers and the offense took possession with four minutes, 19 seconds remaining in the game.
To that point, the Lions had led the game for nearly 50 of the previous 55 minutes. The Packers offense had scored only once, Rodgers' second-quarter touchdown pass to tight end Jermichael Finley, and place-kicker Mason Crosby had already missed two field goals.
At that moment, Rodgers called the Packers' offense together on the sideline. And then, as Rodgers said, "When our best was needed we were able to come through."
Indeed, it took the Packers only six plays to move 82 yards and score the game-winner, a 22-yard pass to receiver Randall Cobb. There were two key plays on the drive, and both illustrated what we've seen from this team of late.
The first was a 40-yard pass from Rodgers to Finley on second-and-10 from the Packers' 29-yard line. Just before the play, Rodgers sent a subtle signal to Finley that the ball was likely coming his way on a pass that would travel 2 yards past the line of scrimmage and, Rodgers said, was designed to get into "third-and-reasonable."
Instead, Finley broke two tackles and benefited when receiver Jordy Nelson took out two Lions defenders.
"We were just trying to play our type of ball," Finley said.
Perhaps, but I think we're more used to seeing the Packers -- of 2010 and 2011, at least -- throw the ball over the top than watch their tight end break tackles and run 40 yards down the sideline. And we also don't often see Rodgers loft a lazy pass into the end zone, as he did three plays later on third-and-1 from the Detroit 22-yard line.
Cobb ran a corner route but was largely covered by Lions cornerback Jacob Lacey. Safety Ricardo Silva arrived for help as well, and Cobb said afterwards that his helmet visor was so dirty and sweaty that he didn't see the ball until it was almost in his hands. With Lacey pinning his right arm this his chest and Silva flashing across his face, Cobb still corralled the ball for the score -- his ninth catch of the game and his sixth touchdown in his past four games.
"You don't know how many opportunities you're going to get," Cobb said, "so you've got to make the play when it presents itself."
During the week, coach Mike McCarthy used a clip of "Forrest Gump" to illustrate his message for the week. I don't think McCarthy thought his team would win a laugher in Detroit. With a few exceptions, it hasn't been that type of team this season. McCarthy just wanted his team to "keep playing," he said, much like Forrest Gump just kept running. (I guess. Still trying to figure out that one.)
"Good teams win these kinds of games," McCarthy said. "We're a good team."
I don't want to overstate my position. I suppose it's just as easy to look at the Packers' winning streak as a group of sluggish victories against mostly inferior teams. Yes, the St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Arizona Cardinals and Lions have a combined record of 12-27-1.
But I guess I see it differently. It sure feels like the Packers have put themselves through a postseason proving grounds over the past five games. That's what this season is about after seeing last year's regular season go for naught.
If I had a choice between a team cruising to regular-season victories and one that's forced to brawl for them each week, I'm taking the latter. Remember something else Rodgers told us this summer:
"One of the things that winning does is it masks some of the issues you might have. When you have a real successful season, the little things get swept under the rug and the big things become little things. It's hard to knock a team on energy and enthusiasm and effort when you're still going out and winning. But it can catch up to you at some point, and it did with us."
I don't see that being an issue in 2012, with the Packers at 7-3 after starting the year 2-3. Do you?