Julius Peppers is tired of just getting close. And he's running out of time.
The Packers linebacker has been one of the top defenders in the NFL for most of the last dozen years. He's been on eight Pro Bowl teams and six All-Pro teams and was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2004. He was named to the NFL's team of the decade for the 2000s.
But he didn't come to Green Bay to pad his Hall of Fame-caliber statistics. He wants the one thing that has eluded him: a championship.
On Sunday, the day he turns 35, he'll have an opportunity to try to move one step closer to that goal.
"This has been a great year," Peppers said. "The thing I hope is different this time is I eventually get over the hump and get it done. I've gotten close a few times. Hopefully this is it."
He's been to the Super Bowl once and this will be his fourth time in an NFC Championship Game. When he was a second-year player, his Panthers team lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. In the NFC title game after the 2005 season, the Panthers lost to the Seahawks. In the NFC title game after the 2010 season, he lost to the Packers as a member of the Bears.
"All of those were close calls," he said, with all but the Seattle loss decided by a touchdown or less. "I always thought I'd be back the following year, and it never happened. It makes you realize that you have to take advantage of the moment when you have it."
He knows that this could be his last chance. Even if he has another couple of seasons in him, there's no guarantee that he'll get this far again. Sure, the Seahawks are back in the conference championship for the second straight year, but the Packers haven't been there since that year they beat the Bears and won it all.
It's not as though he's just along for the ride, either. Peppers has had an impressive season, his first as a standup linebacker after playing defensive end for most of his career.
He had seven sacks and two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the regular season. In the divisional playoff victory over Dallas last week, he added another sack and two forced fumbles, one of which came on a tremendously athletic play in which he reached out and poked the ball away from DeMarco Murray. That helped turn the momentum in the second half as the Packers rallied.
His impact also has been seen behind the scenes.
"I think he's been a quiet leader," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "A lot of guys have fed off his experience, off his knowledge of the game."
Peppers is not an overt leader. He's not a fire-you-up guy. Unlike his persona on the field, he takes a more subtle approach to being a mentor. And this being his first season with the Packers, it took some time for him to find his footing.
"As the year's gone on, he's getting more comfortable with us and speaking more with the defense and understanding that guys are leaning on him to be that leader and looking up to him," Nelson said. "I think that's been great, and being a steady force on the defense."
"Just watching him be a part of our team from day one to now, it's night and day," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, calling Peppers a "very private and reserved" person. "He's been an outstanding leader for our football team. His style is unique, but he couldn't have more credibility for what he's accomplished. He's definitely made a big impact for us."
"I'm just trying to help where I can help the young guys and help the defense overall," Peppers said. "My play on the field I think has been decent as well, but I think more so off the field, trying to help in the leadership aspect . . . As a younger guy, I didn't really realize or necessarily want to be uncomfortable in that leadership role. Over the course of my career, I've become comfortable doing whatever I have to do in that role. Whether it be pulling a young guy to the side trying to make a correction on the field or speaking in front of the team."
McCarthy recently mentioned a one-on-one conversation between Peppers and teammate David Bakhtiari that gave the 23-year-old left tackle some valuable insight about his strengths and weaknesses after the two faced each other the previous season when Peppers played for the Bears.
"I know David was thankful for that," McCarthy said.
Anything to help the team. Peppers knows he can't get where he wants to be by himself. And while others on the relatively young Packers roster may have future championship runs in their future, this could be the last one for Peppers.
"In this game you only get a few opportunities," he said. "When you get to the big games, you never know when you are going to be back, so you've got to try as best as you can to take advantage of those opportunities . . . [Signing with the Packers] has worked out so far. The rest is to be determined. Hopefully it works out and we get to where we want to go to."