Packers steel themselves for playoff push

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With the proverbial table duly cleared by the Green Bay Packers last Sunday night, the stakes are raised as the hour draws near for a few racks of playoff nine-ball.

The Packers completed their sharpest season-ending finish since 1941, winning their last six games to claim their fifth NFC North crown in the last 6 years.

As coach Mike McCarthy noted throughout the Packers’ 6-0 stretch run, it’s a pointless undertaking to talk playoffs until you reach the 10-win mark. Now, after knocking off Detroit 31-24 to finish 10-6, playoff confabs are officially in bounds – even if their eighth straight postseason appearance was assured earlier in the day when the New York Giants eliminated Washington.

By virtue of last week’s win, the Packers saved themselves a trip to the Pacific Northwest and earned a Wild Card home game Sunday against the Giants. The division-championship win added to a growing list of believers and made quarterback Aaron Rodgers – who first advanced the notion of their running the table over the final six games – look like a first-ballot Hall of Fame oracle.

Meanwhile, in losing their last three to finish second in the NFC North, the playoff-qualified Lions were stuck with the first-round booby prize – a trip to Seattle to play in the Saturday afternoon opener. The Seahawks were very ordinary away from home this year, going 3-4-1 in road games, but won seven of eight at ear-splitting CenturyLink Field. In a similar vein, the Packers went 4-4 on the road but 6-2 at Lambeau; the Giants were 7-1 at home and 4-4 in away games.

Home is the place to be in big games, alright, but merely being there is not to be confused with any sort of guarantee. The Giants and Packers both won on the road last week, both teams are peaking and both of their most recent Super Bowl wins – the Packers in the 2010 season and the Giants in 2011 – were preceded with three road victories. No one needs reminding of the last two Packers-Giants playoff games at Lambeau Field.

Likewise, previous meetings are out the door in the postseason. The Packers’ 23-16 win over the Giants in Week 5 carries about as much weight as Arizona’s late-season rout of the Packers did last year before their rematch in the conference semifinals. When the action kicks off at 3:40 p.m. Sunday, both the Packers and Giants are, on the scoreboard and the win-loss column, 0-0.

What matters a great deal is that the Packers’ confidence is tickling the exosphere.

“Our willpower is through the roof,” wide receiver Davante Adams said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Adams caught two touchdown passes in the win over the Lions, including the late fourth-quarter score that put the game away. He was one of two receivers not named Jordy Nelson who came up big at Ford Field. The other was Geronimo Allison, whose game-high 91 yards receiving included a touchdown and a 39-yard grab late in the first half that set up a field goal.

Perhaps owing to their recent hot streak, during which they have forged a 15-1 advantage in takeaways, the Packers are 4 1/2-point favorites to show the Giants the door. Tea leaves and Ouija boards are out the door at this point, though, because as Rodgers noted, “Anything can happen in the playoffs.”

Rodgers also said that the momentum of winning is contagious, and he should know. Patient Zero in this contagion – as in, no interceptions with 15 touchdown passes during the winning streak – Rodgers also threw a strong vote of confidence to his coach and the system in which the team’s trust never wavered.
McCarthy emoted a more subdued joy after winning the division, stressing instead the group mind-set heading into the second season.

“This team has an energy that was evident very early,” he said. “Maybe that’s why we’re not doing cartwheels … our plan is to win it all.”

And no one anywhere is laughing.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. To contact him, send an email to sports@wolfrivermedia.com.

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