The debate that has been percolating in Wisconsin for weeks now can be brought to a full boil.
Now that the Green Bay Packers have clinched just about everything there is to clinch in the NFC playoffs, everyone will have an opinion about how they should play the end of their regular season.
Should they go all out and try to push their record to 16-0 before embarking on another run to the Super Bowl? Or should they think about protecting key players in the final few games so they’ll have everyone as healthy as possible for the playoffs?
With a 46-16 blowout of the overmatched Oakland Raiders Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Packers moved to 13-0 and took a three-game lead in the NFC over the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints with three games to play. If the Packers win one of their final three games, or if the 49ers lose one, Green Bay will have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs ... and nothing tangible to play for in its remaining games.
The funny part is, the Packers faced the same situation in Sunday’s game that they will face should they clinch home-field. Playing their most complete half of the season, they took a 31-0 lead to the locker room and many wondered whether coach Mike McCarthy would risk the health of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his other stars in the second half.
McCarthy gave his answer by playing Rodgers well into the third quarter even though the quarterback was taking increasingly hard shots from the Raiders defense and No. 1 wide receiver Greg Jennings limped to the sideline with a knee injury on the opening drive of the half. If McCarthy was scared straight by any of that, it didn’t show.
“That’s the way we play,” he said. “We don’t play scared.”
That’s admirable, but is it prudent? A few weeks ago, McCarthy called an unbeaten regular season a “bonus goal” and that’s all it should be for these Packers.
Go ask the 2007 New England Patriots, who went 18-0 until losing in the Super Bowl, whether an unbeaten season or an NFL championship was more important. That year, one of the great teams in NFL history was reduced to a footnote after it fell short of perfection in the Super Bowl.
Despite the football immortality that would go along with a 19-0 season, the Packers’ priority should be repeating in the Super Bowl, not going undefeated. That’s certainly not the way it sounded after Sunday’s impressive rout of the Raiders, however.
“I think I can speak for Coach in that he’s going to try to go for this thing,” defensive end B.J. Raji said. “I know Coach. You don’t win a Super Bowl by being scared. You just play. That’s the message he’s preaching. ... Generally, if you do things the right way, hopefully you get some luck in the injury thing.”
It looked like the Packers might need some luck when the Raiders started hitting Rodgers with far too much frequency as the game wore on. With an eye toward the playoffs, the Packers were moving young guys around on their offensive line and it started to show in their pass protection.
On their next-to-last possession before halftime, Rodgers was smothered for a sack by tackle Tommy Kelly and two plays later was hit in the legs by end Jarvis Moss as he released a pass. On the next series, Rodgers was blindsided by unblocked linebacker Aaron Curry, causing a fumble that was later ruled an incompletion by replay.
But if there are risks in a meaningless second half like one Green Bay played Sunday, the Packers weren’t admitting to it.
“There’s risk every time you take the field,” Rodgers said. “We’re going to keep playing the way we’re playing. We have that next-man-up mentality. The guy who steps in needs to play well. Some of those guys who are getting more playing time than usual need to make sure they’re prepared to play and play well.”
But what if the Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday to guarantee that all of its NFC playoff games would be held at Lambeau? It’s hard to imagine McCarthy playing Rodgers for 60 minutes a game in the final two weeks, especially since the Chicago Bears defense historically has been tough on Packers quarterbacks and the Detroit Lions have NFL bad boy Ndamukong Suh on their defensive line.
Ultimately, the decision to play it safe or go for broke will rest with McCarthy, who will be walking a fine line under intense national scrutiny.
“Like any decision that you make, you don’t fly by the seat of your pants,” he said. “You look at all the information involved, all the variables involved, and you look at the options. That’s what we do every week. This week it’s about beating the Chiefs and winning home-field advantage all the way through. That will be the mind-set of our football team.”
Assuming the Packers beat the Chiefs, that’s a mind-set that could hurt more than help them.