GREEN BAY - All they needed was a win. Some momentum. A reason to believe they could save a sinking ship.
That was the collective feeling inside the Green Bay Packers' locker room one month ago. They were heading into a Monday night game at Philadelphia, desperate to escape from the rut of an embarrassing four-game losing streak.
Publicly, quarterback Aaron Rodgers shared his belief the Packers could “run the table.” When the cameras weren’t rolling? One win. Just a start.
“On that losing streak,” rookie defensive tackle Kenny Clark said, “that’s all we were talking about. Hey, we just need to get this win. Just worry about this week. Just take it one week at a time, and we’ll be all right. That’s what we were doing.
“Once we got the win, or once you start getting a couple, they just start rolling in.”
They have been rolling in for a month now. The drought ended in Philly. A new streak started the next week against Houston. The Packers surprised everybody when they blew out Seattle. They survived Chicago.
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Now, their win streak stands at five after a Saturday stroll against the Minnesota Vikings. They control their destiny. It was hard to predict in November, but not impossible.
In an interview last month for a story about Mike McCarthy, former Chicago Bears coach and longtime NFL analyst Mike Ditka put the kibosh on any questions about McCarthy's job security. The Packers sat at 4-5 at the time, on their way to 4-6. It was the low point of a season that remained salvageable.
“Here’s the best thing about it,” Ditka said then. “They’re in a division they can win. Once you get into the dance, anything can happen. That division right now, I don’t know where it’s going. The Bears are really struggling, Minnesota is struggling, Green Bay has been struggling.
“Detroit looks like probably the best team in the division right now. I think they have a few holes in their armor.”
There was a time this season when the Packers had a two-game NFC North deficit behind the Lions and Vikings. Neither put the Packers away when they had a chance. After eliminating the Vikings from playoff contention Saturday, the Packers could do the same to the Lions in their finale.
It’s familiar territory for the Packers. For the fourth straight year, they will play in a de facto NFC North title game to close the regular season. Two years ago, their win over the Lions in the 2014 finale at Lambeau Field secured an NFC North title and first-round playoff bye.
Whether there are any lessons the Packers learned in the past that can help them this week is uncertain, but they’re not new to this position.
“We’ve been here before,” outside linebacker Nick Perry said. “It is what it is now. We’ve got to go out there and get a W. I think the team is prepared for that, and just ready to go.”
The Packers would secure the NFC’s fourth seed with a win over the Lions, assuming the Seattle Seahawks (9-5-1) win their finale at San Francisco. It would set up a rematch against the New York Giants, whom they beat in October at Lambeau Field.
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With a loss in Detroit, the Packers would need help. A loss by Washington (8-6-1) against the Giants next week could be enough. Depending on tiebreakers, the Packers also might need the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-7) to lose.
The Packers potentially got some help Saturday night when the Cincinnati Bengals missed a game-winning kick against the Texans. The Packers' strength of victory was boosted to a .444 win-loss-tie percentage, jumping the Bucs’ .441.
There are plenty of other scenarios to spin around, but the simplest is what the Packers will focus on. Win in Detroit, and they’re in.
“Feels like the best thing we could hope for,” Rodgers said. “We had some adversity, and we stuck together. I’m really proud of the character of the football team. We talk a lot about identity and character and how it’s been one of those trying seasons where it hasn’t quite come together at the right time.
"But over the last five weeks we’ve shown a lot of mental toughness, a lot of grit, and guys sticking together when there could have been some fracturing. So I think that’s the identity of this football team. We’re going to push it right to the very end, and we’re going to stick together and believe in each other.”
NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
East: Cowboys (12-2)
South: Falcons (10-5)
North: Lions (9-5)
West: Seahawks (9-5-1)