No. 12’s words are powerful. When media and analysts and other teams doubt the Packers, Aaron Rodgers has a habit of using his press conference platform to issue a catchy proclamation to prove his confidence in his guys. In 2014, it was “R-E-L-A-X.” In 2016, “run the table.” And when he doesn’t coin a motto that becomes a rallying cry for the fanbase, his silence says just as much. Rodgers is an honest orator, he won’t make a declaration if the doubters are right and his team isn’t the real deal, as was the case last season.
But this year, the edict came right on schedule. After a 20-15 win over the lowly Washington football team that had analysts criticizing the Packers' offense and lack of consistent production, Rodgers declared, “I wouldn’t mind winning ugly all the way to the Super Bowl. Winning is the only thing that matters. Even in the midst of some of these games that aren’t great flow the entire time, we are winning.”
Historically, Green Bay gets hot after Rodgers conjures up a team motto. In 2014, after a 1-2 start, the Packers finished 12-4 and lost to the Seahawks in overtime in the NFC Championship game. In 2016, they did indeed “run the table” and won their last six games, before losing to the Falcons in the NFC Championship. And this season, Green Bay closed out each of the last three games after the Winning Ugly quote with three more victories, all of the ugly variety.
The Packers finished 18th in total offense (yards per game) and were never higher than 17th in the rankings after Week 8. Rodgers went without a passing touchdown in three games this season (all victories), seven of their wins were by just one score, Green Bay lost the turnover margin (typically an indicator of defeat) in two wins. Only one of Green Bay’s multiple-score wins came against a playoff team (Minnesota), and one of their three losses came to a non-playoff team (Chargers). The offense has struggled to find consistent production, but a revamped defense and reliable special teams have kept the Packers alive in games long enough for the offense to find a flow.
“People pay attention when we’re winning,” says starting safety Adrian Amos, an offseason free-agent signee. “Rodgers is a very cerebral person, so I feel like he probably says stuff like that every year, it's just when you start winning after he says stuff like that, then it is remembered and it gets blown up.”
After Rodgers’s winning ugly assessment, running back Jamaal Williams posted a photo from the game to his Instagram story with the text: “Ugly Wins. The keyword is win.”
“I really just get the keyword out of it,” Williams says. “Of course we want to win in a more fashionable type of way, but it's the NFL and everybody gets paid to make plays. They start out ugly but it's the way we keep fighting and we don't stop until the game is over with until we come out with the W.”
The term ugly win is commonplace in the league, so what does it really mean to these Packers?
“It’s one of two things,” says cornerback Josh Jackson. “One, it's either a better game plan or execution by the team that is winning and two, it is the desire to finish out a game. When A-Rod says winning ugly, it doesn't really mean you have 20 bad positions and somehow you luckily come out with the dub. It's staying the course, doing the right thing. A lot of the times we were the more talented team and we're sometimes not on point with what we have to do. Sometimes we are on point [Denver, 27-16, Dallas, 34-24, Oakland, 42-24, Carolina, 24-16, New York, 31-13], and we are dominating. We are able to be more athletic, be more together, and execute better, so I think that's what winning ugly is.”
What was the ugliest win this season? Most Packers teammates agreed it was the last game they played, the regular-season finale, a 23-20 victory over the 3-12-1 Lions. It was only fitting for this Packers team to close out the season with their ugliest win to top all the ugly wins. Rodgers was 27-of-55 for 323 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. For the second time this season, he connected on less than half of his attempts. The Lions' offense caught the Packers with a trick play touchdown.
“Shoot, probably that last one,” Williams says, laughing. “That last one was pretty bad. It had a little more meaning at the end because if we didn't get that we probably wouldn't have had a bye, we wouldn't have been able to go into the playoffs ready to go, so I feel like that was the one where it was a real ugly one.”
The Packers never led in either win over Detroit until the very end, and in the first matchup with the Lions, Green Bay gave up three turnovers, yet still won.
“I also think that last game was probably the hardest game too. I think just having to close that out, a 12-3 team going against a 3-11 team, you know they are going to give you their best shot because they have really nothing to play for. I think for us, it's like, you have to bring that type of energy.”
Securing that first-round bye came down to kicker Mason Crosby, who drilled a 33-yard field goal to win the game. Crosby also kicked a 23-yard game-winner in the first Detroit game this season. He recognizes the direct correlation between winning ugly and his own job.
“So if we have to kick field goals, is it ugly?” Crosby says. “Is that how it is? I don't take offense to it. I'll be happy to win ugly every game if we had to. If that's what it means.”
This divisional-round matchup against Seattle is a fitting one. Both teams' records are much prettier than their play has been, and the Seahawks have been fluky winning all season.
Players say that though the media and fans have latched onto the Winning Ugly mantra, it hasn’t taken hold inside the locker room because it’s in direct opposition of their goal. “Throughout the week the game plan is to not win ugly, the game plan is to win normally,” says Jackson.
Head coach Matt LaFleur purposely made sure his team didn’t have too many rest days during the first-round bye last week. He needs his team to start fast against Seattle, something the Packers have rarely done this season. But if it comes down to it, the Super Bowl is only two wins away, whether ugly or pretty.