A year ago, with his team’s playoff destiny secure, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy chose to rest his core starters during its regular-season finale against Detroit.
Minus Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and several others, the Packers held off the Lions 45-41 to finish 15-1, but fell two weeks later in the NFC Divisional playoffs to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Before ending the 2011 season with a whimper, the Packers bolted out to a 14-0 start while the Giants tried to remain buoyant at 7-7 before the late-season surge that saw them win seven of their last eight games to close the year.
The Packers’ playoff ticket is punched after winning back-to-back NFC North Division titles for the first time under McCarthy with Sunday's 21-13 win over Chicago, but it also begs the question of what approach McCarthy will take into this year’s postseason after last season’s early exit.
The Packers’ next two opponents — Tennessee and Minnesota — are both winnable matchups, especially considering the Packers already beat the Vikings two weeks ago without Matthews and defensive backs Charles Woodson and Sam Shields.
On Monday, McCarthy stood by the manner in which he prepared the Packers last year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll use a carbon-copy approach this time around.
“I don’t like that notion that you’re not really playing for anything,” McCarthy said. “We obviously took the path of resting players in the last week of the season. I know why you’re asking the question, but you also go out to win the game. Would I do that again in that situation leading up to last year? Yes, I would. Now this is a different year, this is a different team, it’s all about growth and having your team the right way going into the playoffs. That’s what I’m focused on this year.”
Entering the game last season against the Lions, four starters sat out with injuries: wide receivers Randall Cobb (groin) and Greg Jennings (knee), tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) and running back James Starks (ankle).
Injuries have written the prologue of the Packers’ season, but the team has been getting progressively healthier with those currently on the 53-man roster, still hopeful two of the biggest absentees — cornerback Charles Woodson (collarbone) and wide receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring) — will return before the postseason.
Now, the key is finding the right formula to propel the Packers into the postseason much like they did in 2010 when they snuck in as the sixth seed and parlayed it into the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl championship.
“Just watching TV last night and you watch the interviews and the cut-ups from the games, and everybody’s talking about playing your best football in the fourth quarter of the season,” McCarthy said. “Obviously that’s the goal for everybody. How do you do that? How do you attain that? That’s really what we’re working through and those are the things we’re focused on to continue to improve in all three areas. I feel like this team has a chance and is heading in the direction to be a much more balanced, well-rounded football team than we were last year.”