A.J. Hawk knew he had two tough acts to follow on Sunday.
The Green Bay Packers veteran inside linebacker and chosen orator had had an inkling going into the game that coach Mike McCarthy would be pointing his direction when pregame speech time rolled around. (Every week, three captains are chosen on Friday, and one is then picked to speak to the team on Sunday with no advance warning.) But by the time the Packers’ 31-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns was over, Hawk couldn’t exactly remember what he’d said.
“You’d have to ask other guys. I said something,” Hawk said after the undermanned Packers (4-2) extended their winning streak to three games by beating the overmatched Browns (3-4). “I had a couple bullet points in my mind. It went decent. It went OK. I kind of got off track a little bit.”
Before last week’s victory at Baltimore, guard T.J. Lang had delivered an impassioned speech on doing “whatever it takes” to win amid adversity. And at midweek, Packers coach Mike McCarthy had channeled his inner Winston Churchill with his “Keep Calm and Carry On” speech as injuries continued to take their toll. While Hawk didn’t have a nifty pre-World War II propaganda poster as a prop, he made sure his message got through.
The gist: With so many big-name players sidelined – from outside linebacker Clay Matthews (who missed his second straight broken thumb), to wide receiver Randall Cobb (designated to return from injured reserve with a broken leg suffered last week), to inside linebacker Brad Jones (who missed his second straight game with a hamstring pull), to wide receiver James Jones (knee), to outside linebacker Nick Perry (foot) – even before tight end Jermichael Finley left the field on a gurney after suffering a scary neck injury, Hawk implored his guys to play with energy, excitement and passion.
“Mine was probably the opposite, a little bit,” Hawk said, comparing his spiel to the coach’s. “I think if you speak from the heart, guys are going to respond.”
And that’s exactly what the young replacements did. From wide receiver Jarrett Boykin catching eight passes for 103 yards and a put-the-game-away touchdown in place of Cobb, to inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore delivering his second straight solid performance to go along with his first career NFL sack in place of Jones, to rookie outside linebackers Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer avoiding any major mistakes with Matthews and Perry out and Mike Neal (shoulder) limited, the fill-ins filled in just fine.
“I give them a ton of credit for stepping in and playing that well and not panicking – ever. Maybe they listened to coach, ‘Keep calm and carry on,’” Hawk said. “Honestly, the poise they had all day was great to see.”
As a result, the Packers have now won 10 straight home games and 23 of their last 24 regular-season games at Lambeau Field and, after a 1-2 start, find themselves atop the NFC North as the midpoint of the season approaches. They enter back-to-back prime time games against division rivals Minnesota (1-4) next Sunday night at the Metrodome and a Monday Night Football date with the Chicago Bears (4-3, after a 3-0 start) on Nov. 4 at Lambeau Field with momentum, even as the injuries pile up. In the conference, only the Seattle Seahawks (6-1), New Orleans Saints (5-1) and San Francisco (5-2) have better records, and only the 49ers (four games) are on a longer winning streak.
“Coach McCarthy was saying it all week, ‘It’s going to be such a good feeling after we win this game, because of how many injuries we’ve had,’” said rookie tight end Jake Stoneburner, who was promoted from the practice squad on Tuesday after doctors discovered damage in the knee of special teams ace Ryan Taylor. “Guys being up, down; guys getting called up from the practice squad – ‘Coach’ was saying it’s probably one of the craziest weeks he’s ever seen team-wise.
“So for us to come together and get a win like that … we had our ups and downs, but I felt like we handled it pretty solidly. It was a good fight by us.”
Even if it wasn’t always pretty. Defensively, the Packers held the Browns to 216 net yards, although some of the blame goes to quarterback Brandon Weeden, who when he wasn’t being inaccurate (17 of 42, 149 yards, one touchdown, one interception, 48.6 rating) was holding onto the ball too long (three sacks).
On offense, McCarthy seemingly sent a message from the start, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball on the first seven plays, including a 10-yard touchdown to Finley that got the Packers on the board first. The seventh pass, a 15-yard strike to Boykin on third-and-8, set the stage for rookie running back Eddie Lacy to take over, as he carried the ball on six of the next eight plays and gained 34 yards – including a 1-yard touchdown to make it 14-0 – on those six attempts. By the time it started raining shortly thereafter, it appeared clear that the Browns would simply be fighting the good fight.
And when the Browns tried to make it quasi-interesting by pulling within 17-6 midway through the third quarter, Rodgers & Co. responded with a 69-yard drive en route to a Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson touchdown and answered the Browns’ lone touchdown with a decisive response after Finley’s neck injury with Rodgers hitting Boykin for a 20-yard TD with 3:44 to play.
“Because I’m a perfectionist, I’m focusing on kind of the in-between drives there where we had three points in a bunch of drives,” Rodgers said. “But it was important with the rain, the ominous rain, we thought we had to get some points on the board early. Weather kind of held for a while, which was nice. And we were able to put together two drives at the end, which was nice.”
Actually, what’s nice is that, despite the teamwide health problems, the Packers still have Rodgers at the controls. Not only did he put together his usual stat line (25 of 36, 260 yards, one sack, three touchdowns, no interceptions, 117.8 passer rating), but he perpetually made the right call on run/pass options, kept the offense in favorable downs and distances and avoided any critical mistakes. In addition, Rodgers is getting help from his fellow veterans, who have delivered the leadership Rodgers predicted they would as the roster was reshaped.
“I've got to really point to the veterans, and I called on them, too. I called on them at the beginning of the week and I called on them again last night,” McCarthy said. “There were young players particularly in that game that had a role, and it was important for (the veterans) to do their role and just play football and not to do too much. Don't get outside of yourself.
“You've got to really take your hat off to our veteran football players. Unfortunately, we've been through this before and we're going through it again and we will excel through this.”
As Rodgers predicted during the week, it may not look the way it has the past few years – “Hang with us fans, it might not be the prettiest game,” Rodgers said – but this team appears equipped to find a way somehow.
“It’s another one of those do-what-you’ve-got-to-do-to-win-the-game games,” said Lang, who later joked that Hawk’s pregame speech wasn’t nearly as good as his had been. “We’ve kind of got a different identity for winning this year with the injuries. We’ve got a lot of young guys playing. Just sticking with it, grinding it out, doing what you have to do to win the game.
“Obviously injuries are tough to deal with, but you can’t spend too much time thinking about it. You have to get the next guy up there and do whatever it takes to win. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.