Packers face fact that potentially perfect reward comes with risk
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You watch the Green Bay Packers play these days, and the thought keeps occuring to you that only one team might be able to stop them from getting where they want to go. And that team would be the Green Bay Packers themselves.
If the Packers are the Packers from here on out, I'd slide all my chips to the green and gold square on the board and let it ride. But if the Packers aren't the Packers, meaning they're banged up and playing at less than full strength as we count down the final weeks of the regular season and head for the playoffs, well, that could tend to level the field rather dramatically for Mike McCarthy's 13-0 team.
Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field brought both a reminder of just how dominant these Packers are this season, courtesy of that 46-16 demolition of out-classed Oakland, and how tenuous the whole idea of perfection can be in the NFL. One minute Green Bay was cruising, up 31-0 at the half, and the next, all eyes were on Packers lead receiver Greg Jennings as he grimaced and writhed in pain, and soon thererafter left the field on a cart with a third-quarter left knee injury.
The Packers called it a knee sprain Sunday night, but it was being reported by Pro Football Talk as a potential but uncomfirmed MCL tear, pending the results of an MRI on Monday. What that means for Jennings' availability for the rest of the regular season and/or playoffs is not yet known.
But what it does underline for this undefeated Packers team is the tricky position they're in between now and the end of the regular season. Green Bay talks openly of going for 16-0 and making the run for a perfect season an organization-wide goal. But as Jennings' injury against the Raiders proved, not to mention the concussions suffered by starting defensive end Ryan Pickett and backup running back Brandon Saine, the pedal-to-the-medal approach comes with risk.
"I think we're going to go for this thing,'' Green Bay nose tackle B.J. Raji said, meaning the perfect season. "I mean, obviously if you're up 34-0, you're going to pull (quarterback) Aaron Rodgers. That's a no-brainer. That's playing smart. But ultimately, just being a competitor, you want to try and do something that hasn't been done in a while. We have the talent and the capabilities, so why not go for it?''
Why not indeed? The Packers, Raji said, can't escape the notion of a perfect season, so there's only one direction for this thing to head.
"The easy way to do it is to embrace it,'' he said. "You can't run from it, because every time you turn around, it's Packers pefection and all this stuff. I don't think you run away from it. It kind of motivates you to play better. You want to do it for each other and do it for our fans and for the organization. It's not my decision who plays and who doesn't, but I think I can speak for coach, and he's going to try and go for this thing.''
As McCarthy himself noted in his post-game comments, the Packers "don't play scared,'' so they won't approach these last three weeks of the regular season with a different mentality than the one that got them to 13-0 for the first time in franchise history. One more Green Bay win or San Francisco (10-3) loss will clinch the NFC's homefield advantage for the Packers, and still they talk of treating next week's road game against punchless, last-place Kansas City (5-8) as a threat not to be taken lightly.
That said, the Jennings injury had to be a bit of smelling salts under Green Bay's nose, with McCarthy choosing to take out both Rodgers and star outside linebacker Clay Matthews late in the third quarter, and rotating substitute offensive tackle Evan Dietrich-Smith into left tackle Marshall Newhouse's spot in the second half. Rodgers was sacked three times, and took more punishment than usual.
"It's football,'' McCarthy said, when asked if he was concerned about the number of hits Rodgers took against Oakland. "To think that quarterbacks are going to go through the game and not get hit, it's not realistic. But yes (we're concerned). We played some combinations of offensive linemen and that's a little bit of a challenge. But we'll look at it, and grade it. That's the way we play.''
The way the Packers played against the Raiders was an awesome sight to behold, and delivered to Green Bay its 19th consecutive victory over the past two seasons, putting it alone in second place in the NFL record books, just two behind New England's 21-game winning streak in 2003-04. In other words, the Packers haven't lost in what amounts to a full NFL regular season, plus a three-game playoff run. Nineteen and 0 is what Green Bay is going for this season, but 19-0 is also what the Packers just attained, counted a bit differently.
"I know we're going to play to win, that's all I know,'' veteran Packers cornerback and team leader Charles Woodson said, when asked how he expects McCarthy to play the final three weeks of the season, especially if Weeks 16-17 are meaningless to Green Bay's playoff seeding. "We'll play to win every game. What that means as far as who's playing, I'm not sure.''
But I think we started to see the approach the Packers will take in Sunday's blowout. This will not be the 2009 Colts. This will be more like the 2007 Patriots. Green Bay will keep its foot on the gas against the Chiefs, Bears and Lions until it has an insurmountable lead and victory is assured, then it will start to substitute liberally. In the best-case scenario, everyone plays some, stays sharp, but stays healthy. But perhaps the injury to Jennings, which took place with Green Bay up 31-0 early in the third quarter, just showed that the plan is far from foolproof. Somebody's got to play, and you can't substitute for your entire starting lineup for an entire half.
"You've got to be smart,'' Matthews said. "We take the field each and every week to win ballgames, and we're all very competitive, Mike (McCarthy) included. But it's tough. As you see from tonight, we had a comfortable lead, which is why players such as myself and Aaron didn't (play) the entire fourth quarter. I think we're being smart, but at the same time we play to the win the game, without compromising anything.''
The Packers' 46-point day against the Raiders allowed Green Bay to set a one-season team record for points with 466, besting the 461 points scored by the 2009 team, with three games remaining. It was also the fifth time this year that Green Bay has scored at least 42 points, tying the 1971 Dallas Cowboys for the most offensive explosions of that size in the Super Bowl era. The Packers can seemingly score at will, and their defense had a stellar outing against Oakland, picking off four Carson Palmer passes and limiting the Raiders offense to just 14 garbage-time points.
So who can stop these Packers?
"Us,'' Woodson said, even while admitting that Green Bay doesn't tend to beat itself often. "We believe in each other, and we believe in our coaches. We believe in our plans and our schemes, everything. If we continue to play like we should play, we'll be fine.
"This is a tough league and a tough sport. A lot of things happen week in and week out, so it's tough to just put three, four, five wins together. It's hard, but this is a team that focused on winning every time we step on the field. As long as we continue to do the little things and stay humble with what we're doing, then we'll continue to succeed.''
Who can argue? The Raiders didn't throw a scare into the Packers on Sunday at Lambeau. The Packers, and maybe the football fates, did. Injuries to the wrong players from here on out seem like the only imaginable way to keep Green Bay away from Indianapolis, and out of the big confetti shower that the NFL releases upon its champion in the post-Super Bowl chaos. Maybe Jennings' injured left knee was the reminder that perfection can be just one play away from ending.
"Obviously anybody can be beaten on any given day,'' Raji said, without sounding too convincing. "But that being said, it's our job to come in here every week and approach this thing like we're not undefeated, like we're not in the playoffs, like we're fighting like we were last year. Like we're hungry and just trying to get into this thing. If we do that, I like our chances.''
So do I. If the Packers can manage to stay hungry, and healthy, who's going to beat them?