Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy looks on from the sidelines during Sunday's Wild Card game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. / File/Press-Gazette
Loose and confident.
Those words best describe the mood inside the Green Bay Packers locker room this week as they prepare for Sunday’s epic NFC championship game against the Chicago Bears.
The Packers will bring a full head of steam to Soldier Field with the single-minded purpose of beating the Bears and advancing to the Super Bowl.
Their confident tone started at the top with coach Mike McCarthy and has seeped into every corner of the building.
When McCarthy declared the Packers were “nobody’s underdog” last month as the team teetered on the brink of playoff elimination, the theme took hold. Rather than feeling sorry for themselves after losing six injured starters for the season, McCarthy circled the wagons and essentially insisted on no excuses and no regrets from his team.
What has emerged is a cohesive group of players that believe in themselves and each other and refuse to allow adversity or distractions to get in their way.
It is well documented that the Packers have been victorious in four straight must-win games, two to close the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs, followed by two on the road in the postseason in hostile environments.
But the Packers started rolling long before that. Take away the two December losses when quarterback Aaron Rodgers was injured, and they have won nine of their last 10 games.
This is far from a perfect team, as the occasional dropped touchdown passes, special teams breakdowns or close-game losses can attest.
What’s impressive is how they respond when trouble comes their way. They don’t flinch or point fingers.
“I think it’s just the character of the team,” said tackle Bryan Bulaga. “It all starts with Coach McCarthy and everything trickles down from there to the players and leaders in this locker room.”
Packers mistakes led to an early deficit last Saturday in Atlanta and the raucous, salivating fans at the Georgia Dome were sensing a victory for the home team in the divisional playoff game. What the stunned Falcons received instead was the full fury of the Packers’ wrath in getting outscored 41-7 over the final 36 minutes of a 48-21 rout.
The Packers did the same thing to the New York Giants in late December. They outscored their shell-shocked opponent 31-3 over the final 32 minutes in a 45-17 beat-down that ultimately earned the Packers the final NFC playoff berth.
And now it’s the Bears’ turn to try and stop the NFC’s version of a speeding locomotive.
It must be galling for the Bears, who beat out the Packers for the NFC North title this season, to find themselves a 3½-point underdog on their home field. You can bet the rent Bears coach Lovie Smith has been playing that card all week behind closed doors.
But the Packers don’t care what the odds makers or anyone else thinks. They genuinely respect the Bears and understand it will take more than simply showing up on Sunday to win.
“We’re nobody’s favorite, either,” said McCarthy. “I think that’s our motto today as a team. This group has a lot of confidence. We've never wavered from our goals. We’ve had challenges, everybody does. But we're here for a reason. We deserve to be here, and we’re excited about getting to Chicago.”
Safety Nick Collins said the team’s goals are simple: stay humble, keep a level head and “just go play Packer football.”
If the Packers follow that formula, they like their chances.
Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Press-Gazette.