The Super Bowl is a very close reality for the Packers this week.
“How do you not think about it?” Aaron Rodgers replied Wednesday when asked if there is much talk about what lies just beyond Atlanta and Sunday’s NFC title game. “We’re 60 minutes away from being there again. It’s obviously on our minds.”
There was a time not so long ago, however, that it was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. The Packers? In Super Bowl LI?
Since that point, when they were a 4-6 team on the verge of disappearing from contention, they have won eight straight, including two in the playoffs. And while that winning streak is the reason the Packers are here, on the verge of another trip to the big game, it was the four-game losing streak that preceded it that one veteran player said made all the difference.
“We had a rough stretch there around the midpoint of the season where we were just in a funk and couldn’t get things going right,” linebacker Julius Peppers said Wednesday. “I think that was where the most growth came, where we grew through adversity. I credit that adversity to our success and getting over that hump.”
The Packers lost to the Falcons, Colts, Titans and Redskins in consecutive weeks and on Nov. 28 went to play in what was, at the time, a must-win game. Playing for a conference championship was a pipedream.
“Nobody was really thinking about it at the time,” Peppers said. “You think about what’s in front of you. At that time our backs were against the wall. We had to go on the road to Philadelphia and win a game, [our mind] wasn’t on a big picture. We knew all of this stuff was out there for us to get, but at the time it was what we had to take care of at the time.”
“We had extra pressure,” Rodgers said of that Nov. 28 game in Philadelphia. “Some players can’t quite harness that fear of failure and generate it into a positive, but we’ve shown this season that in those situations we’ve been able to function and function at a high level.”
The Packers beat the Eagles and have not lost since. There are plenty of reasons for the winning streak, from the play of Rodgers to the improved running game to the defense. But the quarterback said the clearest difference between then and now is simply the belief that the Packers are going to win.
“The confidence and then the energy flow, it’s just very positive in the locker room,” Rodgers said. “Guys have a great mindset, great approach. When you go through rough stretches where you are not playing great, the confidence can waiver with some of the players and as a collective maybe. But when you get to this point where you’ve reeled off a lot in a row, the expectation changes from ‘We’re going to be competitive’ to ‘We’re going to win.’ That’s a very dangerous mindset for a team to get into. I’m really proud of our guys. It’s about that confidence, about believing in each other. As you saw this run start to happen . . . the expectation changed as the confidence grew.”
And now, two months later, they are one win away from reaching the Super Bowl.
Notes & quotes: The Packers may be without two of their top receiving targets on Sunday. Neither Jordy Nelson (ribs) nor Davonte Adams (ankle) practiced on Wednesday. Nelson missed the divisional playoff game at Dallas with his injury while Adams suffered his injury late in that game. McCarthy said he doesn’t think Adams will practice until Saturday . . . Falcons WR Julio Jones (toe) did not practice on Wednesday. Dan Quinn said it was a planned day off and that Jones is expected to see practice reps as the week progresses . . . When asked how he held onto the ball when sacked by Jeff Heath on the game-winning drive against the Cowboys, Rodgers simply held up his big hands. “Size matters,” he said.