The Green Bay Packers reached the Super Bowl last season by beating three teams in the playoffs that it played during the regular season.
Their wild-card opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, was their season-opening foe. Their divisional opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, they played in Week 12. Their NFC championship game opponent, the Chicago Bears, they of course play twice every year in the NFC North.
This postseason will start much the same way.
Though this year they have the benefit of the first-round bye that came with the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the Packers again will open the postseason with a familiar foe — the New York Giants, which beat the Atlanta Falcons 24-2 in Sunday’s NFC wild-card game.
The Packers played the Giants on Dec. 4, when they pulled out a last-second 38-35 victory at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Going into the playoffs, the Packers knew they would open against someone they had already played in 2011. Their three possible divisional playoff opponents were the Detroit Lions (their division foes), the Atlanta Falcons, whom they played on Oct. 9, or the Giants.
The familiarity that some believe was beneficial last year could have the same impact in this postseason.
“The players are probably a little more comfortable, a little more confident,” Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “I know as a staff, it’s a little more comforting to us because sometimes when you’re studying an opponent, you’re looking for teams that operate in a similar matter to you, and there’s some weeks when you look at your cut-ups and you say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if we have a sense of how they might play us.’ So yeah, I definitely think it’s an advantage.”
Truth be told, it’s probably no more of an advantage for the Packers than it is for their opponent, and they know it.
“There’s probably a benefit, just preparation, because we have already spent a week preparing for those teams before,” Packers punter Tim Masthay said. “But they’ve also spent a week preparing for us, so it may be a wash as far as one team having an advantage.”
The Packers spent last week working on what coach Mike McCarthy called “preliminary game plans” on the three possible divisional opponents, but most of last week’s work was spent focusing on themselves, correcting things that went wrong in the final few weeks of the season.
But the two days of practice on Wednesday and Thursday also had a training-camp feel. There were periods of individual drill work followed by some competitive team (11-on-11) periods, which are rare during the season.
The coaching staff then reconvened on Sunday to begin its in-depth work on the Giants.
“I think maybe some people like playing a team for the second or third time,” McCarthy said. “I’ve always felt, based on our coaching staff, I feel we do a very good job against opponents when we play them for the first time. I feel like we’ve given our players an edge. That’s just a feeling because of the way that we operate offensively and defensively. I think it’d be a challenge if you’re going to play us for the first time on a seven-day week.
“On the other side of it, there’s the personnel matchups that you’re in tune with because you have played the other opponent and things you may not have done a good enough job of matchup-wise in the first game that you can try to prevent the second game. It could go either way.”
Clearly, McCarthy believes in his coaching staff and feels confident it can outdo anyone in game planning. That feeling is shared in the locker room.
“If you look at how much time the coaches spend here, it’s unbelievable,” Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “When we get here on Wednesdays, everything’s set and ready to go. It’s incredibly detailed and thorough, and everything seems to work well.”
Because of that, it’s debatable how much of an impact, if any, the regular-season meetings had on last year’s playoff games. The Eagles were a different team on Jan. 9 than they were on Sept. 12. They had Michael Vick at quarterback to start the playoff game. Four months earlier, the Packers spent their practice time preparing for a much different type of quarterback, Kevin Kolb, who was knocked out of the opener by Clay Matthews.
The preparation for Atlanta, which beat the Packers 20-17 in the regular season, and Chicago were far more similar for the playoffs.
“Philly was different,” Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “Michael Vick was the wild card. We had some things designed for him. We wanted to take his scrambling and athleticism away. Obviously, Atlanta posed a different threat, and we knew Chicago real well. We approached it like you’re supposed to approach a playoff game. We approached each opponent differently.”
This year, the Packers had regular-season games against four of the other five NFC playoff teams. If they beat the Giants, there’s a 50-50 chance they’ll see another familiar foe in the NFC championship game. The other divisional playoff game pits the Packers’ Week 1 opponent, the New Orleans Saints, against the San Francisco 49ers — the only NFC playoff team the Packers didn’t play in the regular season.
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