Long playoff grind taking toll on Packers

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – If it were possible to prepare for an NFC championship game without stepping out on the practice field, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy might actually entertain the idea.

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers stops  Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in a game earlier this season.

Since McCarthy was bred to be a control freak, the same as every other NFL head coach, he couldn’t possibly go into a game that way, not even with a quarterback who can take a play and redraw the routes in order to complete a 36-yard pass that sets up a game-winning field goal.

Facing a slew of injuries, a third dome game in four weeks and 16 straight games without a break, McCarthy will be forced to perform one of the most delicate balancing acts of his career.

He will be trying to get his team ready to play the Atlanta Falcons on their home turf with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

“Obviously, this is the NFC championship,” McCarthy said, a day after pulling out a 34-31 upset of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. “When you go through playoff runs, a lot of teams go through injuries. You have to overcome it.

“We will. We’ll be ready to go when we get down there Saturday and finish up the preparation Saturday night and play Sunday.

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When the Packers went into Atlanta six years ago on their way to a Super Bowl XLV championship, they only had two players who had missed a practice that week and both were backups (Frank Zombo and Jason Spitz).

The following week they went to Chicago for the NFC championship game with the same two accounting for the only four days of missed practice.

As he gets his team ready for the Falcons this week, McCarthy could have as many as nine or 10 players miss at least one full day of practice and several others miss multiple days. Among the group are starters Jordy Nelson (broken ribs), safety Morgan Burnett (thigh), left tackle David Bakhtiari (knee), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (ankle) and receiver Davante Adams (ankle).

“Until we see them move Wednesday …” McCarthy said, stopping himself because he was unwilling to commit to anything this early in the week. ”We’re going to gather information on a few of our guys. Everybody is very positive today. We’ll see how it goes.”

The reality McCarthy faces is that resting his players is just as important as preparing them on the practice field. Switching over to his “winter” practice schedule more than a month ago, McCarthy has given the players more time to recover from the previous game.

They do recovery workout sessions or “regeneration” on Monday, take Tuesday off and hit the practice field late Wednesday afternoon instead of the morning. During practice, injured players work with the “rehab” group and receive treatment and perform physical therapy.

Asked if getting healthy was more important than practicing, McCarthy said it’s been that way for a while.

“I think that’s our league,” he said. “Really, you could probably say that year round. I know it has been for us this year. We were in the bye week after Week 3 and boy we needed it (then).

“We’ve been in some level of that mode all season, and that’s just the kind of year that we’ve had personally. But as I look around the league, I don’t know what the league numbers are, but I would say that’s more of a league focus now more than ever. I know it is today compared to five, six, seven, eight years ago.”

The Packers will catch a break for the third straight week playing a team they faced earlier in the season. Not only did the team go through a week of preparation for Atlanta in late October, it played a full game against their schemes.

It could be argued that both teams have evolved since they met on Oct. 30 at the Georgia Dome, a 33-32 Falcons victory, but how they run their offenses, defenses and special teams haven’t changed much.

For the Packers, it means McCarthy can be selective with what he wants to work on in practice, knowing that some of it was covered 2½ months ago.

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“I think it helps both teams,” McCarthy said. “I think both teams are going through their preparation today and you’re pulling out your old notes, the old video and you’re adding on to what they’ve done since then. I know I am, so I think it definitely helps in that way.

“It’s one game. We all do it. You’re going to have too much information as we go through today and tomorrow, but it’s really what you give to the players come Wednesday. That will be our focus, but yes, I think that helps us in this case.”

The strain of playing so many must-win games can’t be dismissed, although the benefit seemed to show at the end of the Dallas game when the Packers pulled out a victory where defeat might have been looming. They were on the end of five walk-off playoff losses going into Sunday and they were finally able to turn the tables and pull one off themselves.

Where things could get difficult, especially for younger players, is not getting over the euphoria of such a hard-fought victory. For those veterans who weren’t on the Super Bowl XLV team, their playoff experience includes the colossal collapse in Seattle when the Packers went from Super Bowl-bound to homeward-bound in less than a quarter.

Those veterans know only what it’s like to blow a golden opportunity and they need to make sure the younger players understand Super Bowl appearances aren’t guaranteed. Some already do.

“We know we need to win this football game,” running back Ty Montgomery said. “We know the ultimate goal is to get to Houston and win in Houston. But that starts this week, one day at a time, one practice at a time and then going down and take care of business in Atlanta.”

The one thing both sides know is that the desire to get to the Super Bowl can’t get any higher in the playoffs than in this game. Both sides know they’re one game away and that it might just come down to which team can maintain its energy the longest.

“The NFC championship is a beast,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said at his news conference Monday. “It always is. So whoever you play, wherever you go, it’s a battle. It’s as much fun as you could possibly imagine when you get to do it in front of your own fans.

“The players know that and that’s why competing at such a high level. For me it’s one of the coolest part of our jobs and for the players it’s the same.”

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