Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers evaluate the Packers' rookie class heading into Sunday's rematch with Seattle. (Jan. 14, 2015) Kyle Bursaw/Press-Gazette Media
Julius Peppers has been on this stage before. Two victories away from achieving the only accolade a potential Pro Football Hall of Fame résumé is lacking.
On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker will participate in the fourth NFC championship game of his 13-year NFL career. Only once has Peppers advanced to the Super Bowl. It came during his second NFL season in 2003 and ended with a 32-29 loss to the New England Patriots.
Peppers figured he'd be back. Now, at age 34, there's only so many more bites left in the apple. When the eight-time Pro Bowler signed with the Packers in March, he did so with the intention of making a run at an elusive ring.
Following Sunday's 26-21 win over Dallas, Peppers is halfway there.
"In this game, you only get a few opportunities," Peppers said. "When you get to the big games, you never know when you're going to be back. So you've got to try as best as you can to take advantage of those opportunities.
"Getting to the Super Bowl, getting to the NFC championship in 2010, going in '05 … all of those were close calls. I always thought I was going to be back the following year, and that never happened. It makes you realize that you've got to take advantage of the moment when you have it."
It was the Packers who dispatched Peppers from his last appearance in the NFC championship game in 2010 with a 21-14 win over Chicago at Soldier Field. He also made a run with the Panthers in 2005, but fell behind early in a 34-14 loss to Seattle.
On the field, the benefits of the Packers bringing in Peppers were obvious. The defense was short on established playmakers. There's immediate credibility involved with adding a 6-foot-7, 285-pound pass rusher with 118½ career sacks.
Peppers responded to his first year in a 3-4 defense with 44 tackles, seven sacks and a career-high 11 pass deflections. His impact goes further than just his statistical contribution, though.
Peppers has developed into a leader in the locker room, which was made evident when he was voted as one of the defense's two playoff captains last month. It's a role he wasn't quite comfortable with earlier in his career, but slowly has learned to embrace.
He's no longer afraid to speak his mind. His midseason pep talk is what a lot of defensive players point to as a turning point in the unit's season. He's fine with pulling a guy aside or addressing the team in a pre-snap speech.
"He doesn't stand up in front of the room and talk a lot, but a lot of guys have fed off of his experience, off of his knowledge of the game," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "I think as the year has gone on, he has become more comfortable with us and speaking more with the defense and understanding that guys are leaning on him to be that leader and looking up to him.
"I think that has been great, and he has just been a steady force on the defense in what he has been able to do."
Peppers made it clear upon signing his three-year, $27 million deal in March that he was intrigued at trying something new after being strictly a 4-3 defensive end since the Panthers drafted him second overall out of North Carolina in 2002.
Rookie outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott remembers Peppers joking that he should've tried standing up earlier in his career. Elliott believes he should've tried playing offense and been "Jimmy Graham or (Rob) Gronkowski."
An undrafted free agent out of Toledo, Elliott was somewhat intimidated when meeting Peppers for the first time during the offseason program. Now, he smiles when seeing the 34-year-old cheer him and the rest of the special teams unit on from the sideline.
"He's goes out there and been in the game for 13, 14 years, he knows the ins and outs," Elliott said. "At the same time, it's very humbling when he tells you, you can do this or that. … That guy really loves the game. He loves his team."
Peppers has reached the end zone twice this season. A 49-yard interception return for a touchdown in Week 5 against Minnesota and a 52-yard return in Week 11 against Philadelphia. That's despite only dropping into coverage 39 times this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Along with his six forced fumbles in 17 games, Peppers' ability to fit into the locker room hasn't surprised coach Mike McCarthy or defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
As the head coach of the expansion Houston Texans in 2002, Capers became well-acquainted with Peppers during the lead-up to the draft. He was impressed, but Houston ultimately drafted quarterback David Carr with the first overall pick instead.
McCarthy coached Peppers in two Pro Bowls. The idea of adding the disruptive pass rusher to a defense that lacked an All-Pro option opposite Clay Matthews made sense. He hasn't disappointed.
"Julius Peppers is definitely the impact that we were looking for," McCarthy said. "He was a very private and reserved person, but just watching him be a part of our team from Day One to now, it's night and day. He's been an outstanding leader for our football team. His style is unique, but he couldn't have more credibility for what he's accomplished."
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on his ESPN Wisconsin radio show Tuesday that he hopes Peppers is back next season. He's under contact for 2015, but carries a $12 million cap number. That's a pretty high number for a player who'll turn 35 on Sunday.
Peppers says he's having fun coming to work every day. That isn't always the case in the NFL. Why has the partnership worked out so well?
"It's worked out so far," Peppers replied. "The rest is to be determined."
That determination comes Sunday against the same Seattle offense that nearly ran their defense out of CenturyLink Field during the regular-season opener, a humbling 36-16 defeat.
The defense has come a long way since. Once ranked near the bottom of the league in total yards, the Packers rebounded to finish a respectable 15th. It all means nothing if they can't change the results against the Seahawks.
And what better birthday present than a trip back to the Super Bowl?
"This has been a great year," Peppers said. "The thing that I hope is different this time is that I eventually get over the hump and get it done because I've gotten close a few times. So hopefully this is it."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.