GREEN BAY – It starts with a decision. To drop a soundbite, or to not drop a soundbite. To reveal your inner belief, risk ridicule, induce eye rolls. Or to play it safe.
Aaron Rodgers has faced that quandary before. Remember R-E-L-A-X? Given the chance, the Green Bay Packers quarterback usually speaks his mind.
He did it again last month. The Packers were coming off four straight losses, including consecutive blowouts. Three days after an embarrassing 42-24 loss in Washington — a loss that still looms large — Rodgers had the audacity to suggest the Packers could “run the table” in their final six games.
Sounded crazy at the time. After throttling the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the Packers are halfway home.
“I thought it was important,” Rodgers said after Sunday’s win, “to state how I really felt about the team at that time.”
There are other, tangible reasons for the Packers' three-game winning streak beyond what seemed at the time to be an illogical prediction. Start with fewer injuries, fewer blown assignments, a better sense of identity. But Rodgers’ belief resonated in the locker room.
When anybody, much less the starting quarterback, suggests something as outrageous as “run the table” when a team sits on a 4-6 record, teammates notice.
His three words have the potential to carry as much weight as those five letters did in 2014. Safety Micah Hyde, sitting at his locker after Sunday’s win, brought up Rodgers’ “run the table” comment unprompted. It spoke, Hyde said, to how the Packers' entire locker room felt.
“We all knew deep down in our hearts that we could do that anyway,” Hyde said. “So 12 saying it, obviously he’s a leader on our football team, we understand that. We listen to things he says, and how his mentality is, but at the same time every guy in this locker room — every locker in here — thought the same thing.
“He was just the one to get in front of the cameras and say it first.”
The Packers still have much work to do. Even if they run the table, it’s possible to miss the playoffs with a 10-6 record. They need help, something that has eluded them the past three weeks.
With three games to go — all against divisional opponents — the Packers are in a logjam. Five NFC teams, including the Packers, have records of 8-5 or 7-6. One will win the NFC South (either the Atlanta Falcons or Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and the New York Giants are in good position for the top wild card after beating the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
That leaves four teams battling for one wild-card slot. The Packers have lost in head-to-head matchups against three of those teams (Washington, Atlanta and Minnesota), though they’ll host the Vikings in two weeks.
Their best shot at punching their eighth straight playoff bid likely is recapturing the NFC North title. They are two games behind the Lions with three to play, including a season-ending trip to Detroit. The Lions must lose one of their next two games — at the Giants, then at the Cowboys — for the Packers' finale to be relevant.
The Lions have yet to provide any help. They’ve won five in a row, and eight of their past nine. While they need the Lions to lose, coach Mike McCarthy said he’s also aware the Packers must keep winning.
“When you’re the leader for your football team,” McCarthy said, “make it real simple. We’ve talked about this in here time and time again. If you get 10 wins, then let’s talk about the playoffs. Until then, it’s all white noise.
“We obviously know where we are. We’re 7-6. Until we get to 10 wins, let’s not even talk about it.”
For a moment, it looked like the Packers could get some unexpected assistance from the Lions on Sunday. They needed a fourth-quarter comeback at home to beat the Chicago Bears, who have proven to be among the NFL’s worst teams.
Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott said many Packers players were aware of the Lions-Bears score. Pregame warmups don’t get underway until 50 minutes before kick, Elliott said. With final preparation mostly done Saturday night, it leaves a window to check in on the league.
Elliott said some players will watch a game inside the team lounge at Lambeau Field. Others will follow on their phones. During games, players on the sideline can look up at the giant scoreboard and take a peek at highlights.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t watch it,” Elliott said, “but at the end of the day, we have to handle our business. It would be nice to get some help from other guys, but at the same time we can’t really talk about playoffs until we get at least 10 wins. We have to go out there and handle our part.
“If we’re fortunate enough to make it in, we’ll get in. But we have to make sure we finish the way we want to finish.”
If they do that, the Packers will be a team nobody wants to play.
Maybe the biggest reason for their resurgence is Rodgers’ play, if not his words. Four straight games, Rodgers has cracked a 100 passer rating. Rodgers’ 150.8 rating against the Seahawks was his highest since Oct. 19, 2014 when he posted a 154.5 against the Carolina Panthers.
Perhaps Rodgers sensed something invisible to those outside the locker room. He actually started heating up a week before making his “run the table” comment, at least statistically. In his past four games, Rodgers has completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,119 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.
He’s gone on these tears before. After R-E-L-A-X, Rodgers threw 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in his next four games.
This season won’t end with an MVP award like 2014, but the Packers — and their quarterback — gladly would settle for a shot in the playoffs.
“At 4-6,” Rodgers said, “I felt like we had a lot of confidence, and it was close to clicking for us. Most of the people in this (media auditorium) probably didn’t believe when I said I think we can run the table, but I was confident in our abilities and getting guys back from some injuries, that we were going to start playing a little bit better and more of a complete game in all three phases.
“And we’ve done that.”
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NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
East: Cowboys (11-2)
North: Lions (9-4)
West: Seahawks (8-4-1)
South: Falcons (8-5)