Defense recaptures swagger for the playoffs
Under the lights at Lambeau Field, the nightmare had life.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the Green Bay Packers' playoff hopes with him when he was carted to the locker room before halftime. Even with a 14-0 lead, Rodgers' absence meant the NFC North title game against the Detroit Lions — and a first-round bye in the playoffs — was suddenly in doubt.
The last time Rodgers was carted to the locker room at Lambeau Field, the Packers gave up 442 yards and 27 points in a loss to the Chicago Bears last season. Now, in the biggest game of the year, the worst-case scenario was happening again. Things only got worse when the Lions marched downfield for a touchdown on their next drive, which would have ended short of the end zone except for linebacker Brad Jones' illegal hands to the face penalty on third down.
This was a critical moment. It could have been a helpless feeling. After weeks of building confidence, the Packers' defensive resolve was about to be tested. After the game — after Rodgers returned to lead Green Bay to a win — defensive end Mike Daniels said the defense never lost its belief.
He could feel it on the field and throughout the sideline.
"When Aaron went down," Daniels said, "it was like, 'All right, let's go. Let's pick this up.' Instead of, 'Oh, woe is me, Aaron's hurt.' See what I mean?"
The difference is important. What Daniels means is an ingredient required for any successful defense, something that hasn't always been present in recent years.
Over the past weeks and months, faith was restored. A defense that has taken its lumps since the Packers' last Super Bowl in 2010 closed out 2014 playing with swagger. Green Bay was one series Sunday from going 12 straight quarters without a touchdown allowed, an impressive streak regardless of opponent.
With a division title on the line, it held Detroit to 313 yards.
"You want momentum built throughout your whole football team," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, "and I think our defense has played exceptional football really since the bye week."
It didn't always look like the defense would get there. Through the season's first half, the Packers had multiple letdowns. They allowed 36 points in an opening loss at Seattle. They gave up 44 points at New Orleans before entering the bye week.
Green Bay's sluggish start to the season left plenty of doubters, but not inside the locker room.
"We've got a bunch of guys that, we're going to 'not succeed' for just so long before we're like, 'Nah, man. It's going to come together,'" Daniels said.
There was one, final hurdle to clear down the stretch.
A second-half meltdown against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football threatened to derail momentum the Packers defense had built. Green Bay watched a 31-7 halftime lead turn into a one-possession game in the fourth quarter. The 37 points Atlanta scored that night were the most Green Bay allowed at Lambeau Field this season, as well as the most given up since the bye.
At that point, it seemed, the Packers' defense could go either way. Green Bay responded with two of its best defensive performances of the season, allowing 15 points combined against teams quarterbacked by Kyle Orton and Josh McCown. The Packers validated those performances Sunday, proving they had moved on from the Atlanta meltdown.
"We definitely put it behind us because we had another game right after it," safety Morgan Burnett said. "We couldn't hang our heads on that too much. We got the win, and we just knew that we had to come together and try to find ways to get another win"
The biggest improvement has come with Green Bay's run defense. The Packers rank 23rd with 119.9 rushing yards allowed per game, short of average but still much better than the season's early weeks. Over the final three games, Green Bay ranked fourth in the NFL with 80 rushing yards allowed per game.
The defense has helped lead the Packers to a No. 2 seed. It has been relied on to hold its own and, at times, win games this season. Now, the most important challenge awaits.
Since the Super Bowl, the Packers have allowed an average of 35 points and 460 yards in three playoff losses. Will this season be different? Daniels points to how the defense felt Sunday when it didn't know whether its MVP quarterback would return to the game.
He believes it will be.
"I think we've been doing a lot of really good things, but the best part about it is we can keep getting better," Daniels said. "When you watch the tape, you're like, 'Oh, wow, we could've done this better. We could've done that better.' You've got a few of those every game, and we're still playing solid football. So that's the best part about it."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood