Five years ago, it looked like the Green Bay Packers were giving birth to a dynasty.
Aaron Rodgers was 27. Clay Matthews was 24. At their core, the Packers were young, talented and brash enough to win multiple Super Bowls.
It has been five years since Rodgers stood on the platform inside AT&T Stadium in Dallas, championship belt draped over his right shoulder. Five years since the Lombardi Trophy was home. The Packers still haven’t returned to the mountaintop.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “You look at some of the teams we’ve had, some of the things we’ve done in the regular season, to come up short. I always say, ‘At the end of the year, there’s only one team that’s going to be excited.’ We definitely felt that we should’ve been to more championship-type of games. I think that hopefully we can use that as fuel.”
The Packers will get another shot starting Sunday when they travel to Washington for their NFC wild-card playoff game. There is at least one direct connection between these Packers and their most recent championship. For the first time since 2010, their postseason journey will start on the road.
It isn’t the only similarity between this team and 2010. There is no indication the Packers are about to make a run to the Super Bowl, just as there was no premonition five years ago. They are the NFC’s fifth seed, almost certainly charged with having to win four games away from Lambeau Field. It’s a long, long road from here to a Super Bowl title.
Of course, it’s a road they’ve traveled before.
Each year, there are fewer and fewer existing remnants of the Packers’ last Super Bowl title. Fifteen players from that team remain on the active roster. Four are playoff captains this season. One is fullback John Kuhn, who said this current crop of Packers have yet to relinquish their hope.
As for everybody else?
“If they don’t believe right now,” Kuhn said, “we have to make them believe. Hopefully, we can do that."
This season started with no shortage of belief. Super Bowl or bust. That was the expectation. The Packers seemed to back it up when they shot like a rocket to a 6-0 start. They were a Super Bowl favorite in October, entering their bye week undefeated.
Then the calendar flipped to November, and the season fell apart.
For two months, the Packers have been a shell of themselves. Their offense finished 23rd in the NFL with 334.6 yards per game. They rank a pedestrian 15th with 23 points per game. Both are the lowest since Rodgers became the team’s starting quarterback in 2008.
“It's not what you think when you think of the Green Bay Packers, really,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said.
No, this has been a bizarre season in Green Bay. The offense has played poorly. The defense has played well. That unit ranks among the league’s top half in many categories, including 12th with 20.2 points allowed per game.
Which is why the Packers have a chance of becoming a dark horse in the playoffs, no matter how long their odds. If an offense led by a two-time MVP quarterback can suddenly awaken, the defense is good enough to hold up its end of the bargain.
“We've got a great defense,” eighth-year guard Josh Sitton said. “It's probably the best that it's been since I've been here. They've played great all year. They've kept us in games that we maybe shouldn't have been in, giving us a chance to win games late.
“If we can just be good on offense and score 20, 30 points, we feel we can win a lot of games. We've just got to do that."
For an offense that led the NFL in scoring last season, it should be easy. Instead, the Packers' offense has accounted for 30 points only once this season: in a win against the Kansas City Chiefs, way back in September.
The offense has only gotten worse recently, finishing the season with eight points in Arizona and 13 at home against Minnesota. It would seem unlikely the Packers suddenly find their rhythm in January, but that’s the thing about the postseason: A magical playoff run usually defies rationale.
Little was expected of the Packers entering the playoffs in 2010. They traveled to Philadelphia — winners of the NFC East — and escaped with a five-point win. The Packers were headed to Atlanta the following week, a matchup against the No. 1 seed. They blew out the Falcons by 27 points and never looked back.
Maybe it can happen again.
“It’s tough,” Rodgers said, “but I think it can galvanize a team when you’re going in a hostile environment. I know we’re going to have a great crowd that’s going to follow us there, but those are the fun wins. There’s not much better — obviously, we’re spoiled to play in Lambeau — but the feeling you have, a road win and that flight back, is a pretty special feeling that any former player would tell you is right at the top of the football mountain.”
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