Too Close for Comfort? Not for Packers, Seahawks

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The phrase, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” is credited to 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks are a testament. They survived one close game after another to set up Sunday’s NFC Divisional showdown at Lambeau Field.

“I love close games. I think they help you,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said recently. “They make you stronger. They keep you in the game longer. They make you have to focus farther, and it prepares you for more kinds of things that can happen that you need background and experience in.”

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The Packers and Seahawks thrived in close games this season. Including Sunday’s Wild Card victory at Philadelphia, Seattle is 11-2 in games decided by eight points or less. That’s two more wins than any other team in the league. Green Bay is 8-1 in one-score games, including wins over Washington, Chicago and Detroit in December. Its .889 winning percentage is the best in the league.

Officially, Green Bay’s close-game success began at the start of the season, with wins of 10-3 vs. Chicago and 21-16 over Minnesota. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark, however, said the seeds for consistent close-game success were sewn in May rather than September.

“That comes from OTAs. I think that comes from way, way before,” Clark said. “I feel like we always had talented guys to play good football. We’re trusting that this guy is going to do his job. It wasn’t always like that. I truly believe that’s what the difference is. It’s guys playing for each other. That’s a huge reason. Everybody knows how to play football. But when you’re playing for somebody, you’re playing to not let somebody down.

“Week 1 sticks in my head because that game, we needed to play great defense, we needed the special teams to play great and the offense ended up scoring. We played complementary football. That really showed, ‘Man, we can play like this. We can do this.’ I’m talking about defense and special teams. With a new coach and a new offense, we knew they were going to get their stuff get going. ‘When they get rolling, we’re going to be a dominant team.’”

The offense hasn’t gotten rolling and the dominance hasn’t happened but the Packers won 13 games this season. With NFC North bragging rights and a first-round bye on the line, Green Bay put together a superb second half to win at Minnesota by 13 and overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to win at Detroit on a last-minute drive and final-play field goal.

“Belief. It’s definitely belief,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the Detroit game. “For whatever reason, there’s an expectation that when we get in those situations now, we’re going to score. It wasn’t always like that. I think back to 2008, when we had opportunities for much of that season. A few times we scored but we gave up scores after that, but we weren’t very good in those situations. And then 2009, first game of the year, I hit Greg (Jennings) on a post, and it’s been slowly building since then to where even guys on other teams when they come to us, there’s an expectation that if we get the ball in two-minute, we’re going to score. That belief carries a lot of weight in those situations. The calmness with which we operate in those situations, I think, allows us to really focus and personally allows me to get in my zone as far as what plays I want to get to.”

In 2017 and 2018, the Packers were 9-8-1 in one-score games. The team’s collapse last season was marked by five consecutive losses in close games.

It’s not as if first-year coach Matt LaFleur has used some sort of potion. Some iteration of “don’t blink” has been spoken by LaFleur to his players countless times, but every coach probably has some sort of similar catchphrase. Every team practices the type of two-minute situations that can win or lose a game. After the Detroit game, LaFleur said the team’s close-game success was a reflection of the character of his players.

Character, belief and momentum have gone a long way toward keeping the team alive into January.

“There’s a lot of teams that don’t have really good records but they were five plays away from winning five more games. That’s the mark of a good team,” safety Adrian Amos said.

But how do the Packers routinely make those plays when other teams fall short?

There’s nothing magical, it seems.

“It’s making those plays when it matters,” Amos said. “It’s making those five plays. It’s executing, not folding, not panicking when things go wrong and blowing up when you’ve got to.”

Or, as Clark put it: “Just mindset. Just striving. Striving to be great (and) not trying to survive situations.”

Chances are, Sunday’s playoff game will be decided in the final minutes. After all, combined, two-thirds of these teams’ games have been decided by eight points or less. Rodgers and his counterpart, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, are clutch quarterbacks with considerable late-game histories. Green Bay will have the home-field advantage but Seattle has been fearless on the road and has a veteran coach.

“Well, I think we’re a poised team,” Carroll said. “I think it comes right from (captains) Russell and Bobby (Wagner). I think those guys on the field make other guys stay within themselves and not get scattered and continue to help us execute. It means really, the leadership that those guys offer, I would go right to that. We’re never out of anything. We don’t ever feel like that. To be like that and extend that message, you have to come across with poise or guys aren’t going to listen to you and it’s not going to have the effect. We have really good leadership. I would like to think that’s a big part of it.”

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