Packers earn their keep

Published On: Dec 30 2013 11:33:33 PM CST   Updated On: Dec 31 2013 06:41:06 AM CST
Green Bay Packers
GREEN BAY, Wis. -

Mike and Jessica McCarthy looked around their family room late Sunday night at the Christmas haul their five children – one college student, two pre-teens and two toddlers – had taken in from, ahem, Santa, their conversation turned to parenting philosophy.

Alex, Jack, George, Gabrielle and Isabella don’t want for much of anything thanks to Dad’s lucrative gig as the Green Bay Packers’ head coach, which got McCarthy and his wife to talk about the challenge of making sure their kids don’t take for things for granted or fail to learn the importance of working hard to earn something.

“I think anything in life, when you earn it, it feels better,” McCarthy said Monday, one day after his Packers earned – and we do mean earned – the club’s fifth straight playoff berth with a 33-28 last-minute victory at Chicago, which gave the Packers (8-7-1) the NFC North division title and an NFC Wild Card playoff game at home next Sunday against San Francisco (12-4).

“Entitlement is something my wife and I were just talking about [in relation to] Christmas and gifts and how your kids get everything and how to teach them work ethic and the importance of earning everything.

“It’s no different than with a football team. When you really have to earn it to get in, yeah, it’s very rewarding.”

The Packers not only earned it by winning Sunday, they earned their playoff berth by winning three of their final four games – including one-point victories over Atlanta at home on Dec. 8 and Dallas on the road on Dec. 15 – and by battling back from fourth quarter deficits in five of their final six games. (They did, admittedly, also get some help from the Bears and Detroit Lions, who both stumbled down the stretch.)

Nonetheless, for a team that hasn’t played from behind very often in the Aaron Rodgers era – heck, during their 2010 Super Bowl XLV title season, the Packers never trailed by more than a touchdown at any point that year, and they followed that up by going 15-1 in 2011 after opening the season with a 13-game winning streak – this team’s weekly comebacks and late-season rally had them playing against type. The only game in which they didn’t stage a comeback was a 40-10 annihilation on Thanksgiving Day at Detroit, a loss that left many thinking their season was over.

“Being behind at halftime of the third quarter, that’s by design,” McCarthy deadpanned Monday before making a silly face to clarify that he was being facetious. “We were a team that hit some bumps early in the season, then we were on a run (and) were 5-2, (and) then the challenges come. There were some ups and downs. I think through any experience you have, you’re able to gain things you can apply to the future – even during the bad experiences, too.

“I mean, bouncing back from Detroit was a great experience for our football team. It’s something now we can look back on and know you can bounce back from the lowest point in your season and respond. All of those things are things that are part of the character of this football team.”

That character came through on Sunday, when Rodgers – playing in his first game since fracturing his left collarbone against the Bears at Lambeau Field on Nov. 4 – engineered a 15-play, 87-yard, game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive that ended in a 48-yard fourth-down TD pass to Randall Cobb against a Bears all-out, seven-man blitz.

Once Cobb – playing in his first game since suffering a small fracture at the top of the tibia in his lower right leg Oct. 13 – caught the ball around the 10-yard line and crossed the goal line for the go-ahead score, all of the Packers’ troubles were in their rear-view mirror.

“This is a special group of guys who’ve been through a lot,” Rodgers said afterward. “It’s been a rollercoaster – losing two of the first three, then winning four in a row, and then I get hurt. We have a rough stretch there where we don’t win for five weeks. Then we win a couple one-point games. A tough one last week. So it’s been a rollercoaster season.

“But I think you have to applaud the organization and Mike and his staff for keeping the guys focused and keeping them together. I think there could have been multiple times where guys could have fractioned off or said, ‘To heck with this season, it’s not going to happen.’ But guys kept believing in each other, and we’re just fortunate – myself, and Randall – and just glad to be able to be back out there.”

Rodgers was more than just out there. McCarthy went deep into his football memories searching for a greater clutch drive than the one Rodgers and the Packers delivered en route to the Cobb touchdown, converting three fourth-down plays on the drive, starting with a fourth-and-1 at the Green Bay 22-yard line that the players helped talk McCarthy into going for.

After fullback John Kuhn picked up that first down, Rodgers scrambled for a 5-yard gain on third-and-3 – juking Bears seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs – to pick up the next first down, then hit Jordy Nelson at midfield for a 6-yard gain on another fourth-and-1 to keep the drive going again. Four plays after that, Rodgers saw the Bears’ all-out blitz coming, eluded onrushing defensive end Julius Peppers (with help from a Kuhn chip block) and floated the game-winner to Cobb, capping the greatest game-winning drive McCarthy had ever been a part of.

“I don’t know of one better,” said McCarthy, who then recalled a 1994 game when he was an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, who had four-time Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Montana at quarterback. “Monday Night Football up in Denver, John Elway – it was a great classic game. We went down the field in the 2-minute drill to win the game.

“But this was for all the marbles. Aaron hadn’t played in eight weeks. They were aggressive with their game plan. This was clearly, you know it feels good today because it just happened yesterday, but it’s the finest one I’ve ever been a part of.”

McCarthy went on to say that the victory was Rodgers’ “probably his finest hour as a Green Bay Packer,” although the hope is that there’s more to come.

“There is merit in going into the playoffs and coming out of situation experienced. That has you prepared for playoff football,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know how we could be better prepared for playoff football than what we’ve been through the last four weeks. I’d take our four-week experience over everything. So we’ll see what happens.”

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.