Go ahead, Green Bay. Smile, honk your horn, raise a glass or two.
The NFC championship game will include the Green Bay Packers for the second time in the past four seasons and the fifth time in the past 16. Thatís celebration material on any cold Wisconsin day.
The evidence was conclusive Saturday night with a 48-21 dismantling of the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons, which sends the Packers into the Jan. 23 Super Bowl play-in game against either the Chicago Bears or Seattle Seahawks.
Yes, the Packers have been to this doorstep often, but, in truth, it never looked quite like this before, did it?
Lowest seed, no home playoff games, four straight weeks in single-elimination mode.
Yet the talking TV heads and scribes got it right this time when they said no playoff team is anxious to line up against the Packers now. And that Aaron Rodgers-led masterpiece that cut the heart out of Georgia has only added a further shudder to the next opponent, just as it has boosted the Packersí confidence and resolve ten-fold.
But this football euphoria is decidedly different than that frigid overtime game against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field when most fans thought a Super Bowl berth was in hand but went to bed disappointed.
Letís quickly skip over the fact that this will be the first Super Bowl qualifying game that the Packers will face without either Bart Starr or Brett Favre. And letís affirm the fact that the Packers donít lack for marquee players ó Rodgers, Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews and Greg Jennings ó whose heavy lifting played a major role in bringing the franchise to the brink of its fifth Super Bowl and a chance for its NFL-best 13th league championship.
But there was too much roughage that kept telling us that the climb to the crest of the mountain was going to have to happen another time, another season.
When the games began, was anyone crowing about James Starks? Can we have a show of hands of all who had John Kuhn on their fantasy team?
And fess up, skeptics, werenít you grumbling that Mike McCarthy wasnít the leader that could return this group of players to the Final Four?
Then there was the triage troupe that threatened to make team physicians Patrick McKenzie and John Gray the MVPs. Gone were Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley, Nick Barnett, Mark Tauscher, Greg Jones and others.
It bred negative karma, but it obviously didnít matter.
Lastly, this team didnít start the playoff race at the pole position. As the sixth seed, its gauntlet ran through Philadelphia and Atlanta, with plane reservations currently on hold for either Chicago or Seattle.
Ah, but most Packers fans canít worry about which team is next on the schedule.
Theyíre too busy smiling.
Tony Walter is a columnist for the Press-gazette. He can be reached at (920-431-8360) or at firstname.lastname@example.org.