GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers are now just one ugly win away from the Super Bowl. One win from making good on Aaron Rodgers’ early December assessment that he, “wouldn’t mind ugly winning all the way to the Super Bowl.”
These Packers are a different bunch. A first-time head coach, a revamped defense stocked with pricey free-agent signings, and a sense that they can beat anybody, even though they have rarely played their best football this season. Their wins are different, and they nearly squandered a 21-3 lead against Seattle, thanks to a lack of a sustainable offense and a pass rush that struggles to get home consistently. But once again this season, all the Packers had was just enough, and despite such narrow margins of victory, they’d each still bet on themselves, a mindset that began on the team plane to Chicago for the season opener.
Just before takeoff, Za'Darius Smith walked up and down the aisle of the plane holding out a plastic grocery bag full of cash. As he passed each row of teammates, he solicited entries into his winner-take-all game, which is old to him, but new to these Packers. Z started playing this game on Baltimore’s team plane, where he spent his first four NFL seasons. And he wasn’t going to stop the fun now with his new team. Most teammates obliged, took out $20 of their per diem, wrote their number on it and placed it in the bag. Coaches and other Green Bay staffers joined in, and so did the flight attendants. Smith kept the buy-in low for the first round so he could encourage more of his teammates to play. Aaron Rodgers hedged his bet and submitted four bills into “the pot.”
Smith walked back up to the front of the plane, shook up the money bag and handed it to a flight attendant, who fished around inside for the lucky bill.
“And the winner is… number 16!”
But 16, otherwise known as Jake Kumerow, had his headphones on and didn’t hear the announcement. His teammates punched his arm and bumped his seat, shouting their disappointment in their own losses. Surprised by his luck, Kumerow took his headphones off and started counting out his pot. $860. Not bad for Z’s warmup round.
Since then, Smith has upped the ante, and players put in at least $100 to the pot. Usually, it’s coming from their per diem allotment, but Rodgers still prefers to put in three or four hundred. The pot gets big, around 3,000 or 4,000. Rodgers hasn’t won yet.
“They never did play it here before, I was talking to 12 about that,” Smith says, shouting in the direction of Rodgers, who nods along at his locker. “And then 12 loved it. I think one week we didn't do it, and he was [upset].”
"I try to write my number as big as I can on the bill so hopefully he might cheat and pick me," says cornerback Josh Jackson. "I've lost like $600."
Running back Aaron Jones won the pot once and so did cornerback Kevin King, but several players said they stopped playing toward the end of the season because they were tired of losing money. Allison was one of those players, but in the locker room after a thrilling five-point win over Seattle, he'd had a change of heart.
"I will play again," he says. "It might be my week to win it."
“You have to play,” says kicker Mason Crosby, a 13-year Packers veteran. “The interjection of some of the new guys in the locker room, guys from other teams has been fun, it's been good to freshen that up. They bring a lot of energy and a lot of excitement so I am glad those guys are in the building.”
Team flights were a whole lot quieter before Zadarius arrived from Baltimore last March. Z is such an energetic and natural leader that he was named a team captain after being in Green Bay for just a few short months. Players point to the fifth-year linebacker for molding this team into a closer-knit unit.
Z had two sacks against Seattle, and his other half, Preston Smith, another free-agent signee from Washington, also had two sacks. Preston’s second sack was a crucial play on third down with 3:22 left in the game. The Seahawks had scored touchdowns on their three previous possessions, and Smith’s sack forced them to punt. Preston left the field on Seattle’s previous drive with an ankle injury but was able to come off the bench for the sack.
Containing Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson was no easy task for Green Bay’s defense, and Wilson put up 64 yards rushing.
“It was like chasing a chicken in a field with no fence,” Preston Smith said.
“I’m totally gassed,” says defensive end Dean Lowry.
Though the defense allowed Seattle multiple second-half touchdowns, it stopped the Seahawks when it mattered most. On Seattle’s two-point attempt after its last touchdown, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine called a corner blitz featuring Jaire Alexander and Wilson never saw the second-year cornerback coming.
“They weren't expecting it,” Alexander says. “I don't think we've got that call all year. It was perfect. I'm surprised, I thought [Wilson] was going to see me at the last second, so I kind of slowed down, but he didn't even see me.”
Green Bay’s defense bent, and allowed two rushing touchdowns to Marshawn Lynch, but it didn’t break. “A win is a win,” says linebacker Rashan Gary. “They don't ask how, they ask how many.” At that statement from Gary, Preston Smith laughs from his locker, which is right next to the rookie’s. “Oh, that’s a quote from Preston,” Gary says. “Make sure you put that in there.”
Green Bay’s offense finally got the hot start they’d been searching for, scoring 21 points in the first half. It was just the third time the Packers had scored 21 points in the first half this season.
“We felt poised,” says receiver Geronimo Allison. “The morale around offense, around the team was poised. That's something Aaron kept preaching, don't let the lights get too big for you, or the moment get too big, just stay within your means and stay poised. Stick together and let's ride this wave.”
Seattle had no answer for Davante Adams, who scored two touchdowns and put up 160 yards. Adams scored a 20-yard touchdown on third-and-7 on the opening drive after he faked a rub route with Allison. Seattle was in man coverage, and the two defenders couldn’t communicate fast enough after the fake.
Adams' second touchdown was even more impressive. Out of 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one receiver), Adams ran a “filthy” (Allison’s words) post-corner route against Seattle cornerback Tre Flowers and beat him twice on the route. Rodgers threw Adams a high ball, which Adams admitted actually was a good thing because it stopped him and then instead of following the route to the sideline, he had slowed enough to cut back inside to outrun Flowers to the end zone. The 40-yard score put the Packers up 28-10 with 7:21 left in the third quarter.
Adams credits head coach Matt LaFleur with the design of that play. LaFleur waited for the exact moment to run it when Seattle's defense was showing man coverage. "Matt the genius drew it up out of 13 personnel and he knew we were getting man just based off the numbers, so it was just on '17' to go out and run a route," Adams says.
Rodgers looked like vintage Rodgers again at times in this game. He converted two third downs on the Packers' final drive to seal the game, once to Adams on third-and-8, and once to tight end Jimmy Graham across the middle on third-and-9.
“Tonight reminds me of the connection that Jordy [Nelson] and I had for so many years where there’s some unspoken things that we could do without even communicating anything about it,” Rodgers said. “And Davante made three or four plays like that tonight, so that was pretty fun.”
The strength of the Rodgers and Adams connection and the return of the Rodgers of old is an encouraging sign for Green Bay’s offense as it heads into a week of preparation to face San Francisco’s dominant defense in the NFC title game. The Packers got blown out by the 49ers, 37-8, in Week 12.
Green Bay’s players will hop on a plane Saturday bound for San Francisco, and Allison predicts, “Somebody will be asking for [the game], like Z are you going to put the pot up?”
“Oh hell yeah,” says Kumerow. “We might have to double that up this week for the playoffs! We need to get two more of those games.”