The Green Bay Packers didn't clinch a playoff berth until safety Nick Collins (36) came up with an interception with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2011. Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
It was fitting that the Green Bay Packers didn’t secure a playoff berth until 10 seconds were left in the regular season.
Only after Nick Collins intercepted Jay Cutler’s pass intended for Devin Hester Sunday at the Green Bay 11-yard line could the Packers and a stadium full of delirious but nervous fans at Lambeau Field breathe a sigh of relief. The Packers’ 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears was finally secure, as well as the sixth and final invitation to the NFC playoffs.
Nothing has come easy for the Packers this season, so why should the regular-season finale be any different?
“We wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who will guide his team into the playoffs for the third time in five years.
“We’ve had a different road we traveled this year and we’ve met every challenge.”
It’s been a long, difficult road with many obstacles, potholes and detours, but the Packers find themselves exactly where they need to be. They are one of 12 teams still in the running for the Super Bowl title.
While the history of sixth-seeded teams in the playoffs isn’t favorable – only Pittsburgh in 2005 won the Super Bowl as a No. 6 seed, and no NFC No. 6 seed has advanced to the Super Bowl – the Packers are thankful they are part of the playoff discussion and believe they are capable of beating anyone.
“I think we know who we are from top to bottom and we’ve got real confidence in ourselves and each other,” said linebacker Desmond Bishop. “If we put it together right it’s going to be a beautiful sight.”
The Packers must win three consecutive road playoff games to advance to the Super Bowl, a difficult but not unprecedented task. With the Packers boasting the No. 1-ranked scoring defense in the NFL, anything is possible.
The familiar credo about defense winning championships isn’t lost on the Packers. Safety Charlie Peprah, who had the other key interception against Cutler in the end zone to squelch a Bears’ third-quarter scoring threat, subscribes to that theory.
“Nowadays they’ll say defense gets you to the championship, offense wins it but whatever, you’ve got to be able to play defense if you want to get far in the playoffs,” Peprah said.
And the Packers are playing some kind of impressive defense. The Bears, who scored 78 points in their previous two games, were stopped in their tracks.
Last year, the Packers got torched for 51 points in a first-round playoff loss to Arizona but this time around enter the post-season with a different mindset. With a solid nucleus of starters getting significant and unexpected contributions from unsung injury replacements like Peprah, Bishop, Erik Walden and Howard Green, the Packers are playing the kind of suffocating defense that can take over games.
“I think the body of our work throughout the season is where we get our confidence from,” Bishop said. “We’re definitely going to take it into the playoffs.”
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill No. 6 seed that slipped in the back door. The Packers have taken down No. 2 seed Chicago and No. 3 seed Philadelphia during the regular season and gave No. 1 seed Atlanta all it could handle on the road.
If not for a 7-3 December loss to the Detroit Lions, in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers sat out the second half with a concussion, the Packers would own the NFC North title and the No. 2 seed. That’s not so much a lament about what could have been, but rather an indication of how closely contested the NFC playoff field is.
The Packers will be battle tested after playing a pair of must-win games to finish the regular season. They knew they needed to beat the New York Giants and Bears to make the playoffs, and they pulled it off.
“It gives us a head start to know what to expect,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “It’s not going to be (anything) new to us when we get there.”
But after losing six starters to season-ending injuries and a half-dozen games by four points or less this season, the Packers know more challenges await and it won’t get easier in the playoffs. They seem to like it that way.
Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Press-Gazette.