Silverstein: Steelers game looms as ultimate test of Packers' character

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy on the sidelines against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, October 8, 2017 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tx.

GREEN BAY – Just as it did seven years ago when the Green Bay Packers, minus quarterback Aaron Rodgers, were 14 1/2 -point underdogs at the New England Patriots, this weekend's game should provide an inclusive scan of where Mike McCarthy’s team is and where it is headed.

The Packers were 8-5 heading into Foxboro after losing a division game and Rodgers (concussion) at Detroit the week prior. The Patriots were 11-2, having won their last three games by a combined score of 126-34.

Backup Matt Flynn was making his first career start after spending two-plus seasons prepping under McCarthy and Rodgers and practically everyone figured the Packers didn’t have a chance.

They were right, of course.

The Packers lost 31-27, but the game brought out a side of the Packers no one had seen.

Their inspired performance – from McCarthy’s decision to onside kick on the opening kickoff to coordinator Dom Capers roughing up Tom Brady’s receivers to Flynn coming within 15 yards of pulling off the upset – revealed a character that would lead them all the way to a Super Bowl XLV victory.

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It would be silly to suggest the Packers have a chance to win Sunday in Pittsburgh, where they are 14-point underdogs to the 8-2 Steelers, let alone make the playoffs. But they do have a chance to make their lost season count for something.

If they don’t bring the fight to the Steelers the way the 2010 team did in New England – have everyone playing together and at a different level they haven’t matched since the opener against Seattle -- then they lack the character to win anything even if Rodgers weren’t out with a broken collarbone.

“We kind of looked at that from the get-go, we've got to try and weather this storm,” linebacker Clay Matthews said of losing Rodgers. “That’s kind of been the course here. If we can string a couple of these victories going forward before Aaron comes back, we definitely have a realistic shot.

“We're not in a position where we feel the season's over by any means.”

There’s only so much they can do offensively with Brett Hundley, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be competitive. It doesn’t mean they can’t come out with their hair on fire and be the first ones to fire up the furnace.

Unless there’s a good chance Rodgers returns with multiple weeks left in the season, as Matthews suggested, McCarthy is coaching this team for next season, trying to figure out what kind of chemistry there is and who cashes it in for the season.

He found out what Martellus Bennett’s commitment to the team was and now he needs to find out if there are others who aren’t on board. This is also the time some of his first- and second-year players should be coming around and pushing the veterans for playing time.

If the Packers can’t bounce back from the humiliating Baltimore shutout, then the roster needs to be re-evaluated.

“I think the biggest thing, and it’s a constant in our business, you cannot advance to where you want to go without adversity,” McCarthy said this past week. “It’s fun when it’s smooth sailing, but we need these opportunities, we need these situations. I think it will ultimately give us the growth to achieve the success we need. That’s how I’ve always viewed it.”

Hundley doesn’t need to throw for four touchdowns Sunday night. The defense doesn’t have to pick off Ben Roethlisberger three times. The Packers don’t even have to win the game.

But if you can’t play your best football – whatever that is for this team – against one of the best teams in the NFL, on the road, in front of a national television audience, then there’s something wrong.

“This game is about ups and downs, and runs, and the other side of that, which is what we’re going through right now,” receiver Davante Adams said. “You have to fight through that adversity. It’s not going to be easy. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”

McCarthy has a history of getting his teams to fight their way out of a hole and with a 5-5 record and the Steelers on deck, the hole can’t get much deeper.

Last year at this time, Rodgers wasn’t playing well, the defense was mediocre and special teams were a non-factor. The Packers went into Week 12 as 4-point underdogs on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles on a Monday night.

They controlled the game from start to finish and won, 27-13. They didn’t lose again until the NFC Championship game.

They were road dogs against Minnesota in 2015 after losing three straight, including their first home loss to Detroit since 1991, and then beat Minnesota on the road, 30-13.

In 2013, they were 6-6-1 after losing Rodgers to a broken collarbone when they traveled to Dallas as four-point underdogs. Behind Flynn, they rallied from 23 points behind at halftime and won, 37-36, to keep their playoff hopes alive.

As they head to Pittsburgh, those games may have some meaning to the players, but they’re not the same team as a year ago or two years ago and now they’re going to find out whether they are capable of competing with the best.

Aside from not having Rodgers, they’re pretty healthy. The running back position is depleted but rookie Jamaal Williams is serviceable and the offensive line is stable again. Nose tackle Kenny Clark (ankle) won’t play and Matthews (groin) probably won’t either, but Quinton Dial and Ahmad Brooks are healthy and safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Kenny King are back this week.

The only excuse the Packers might have for not competing with the Steelers is Hundley. And if he plays as poorly as he did against Baltimore, McCarthy should pull him for Joe Callahan.

Whatever the case, you’ll know whether the Packers have come to play or play to go home. And if it looks like they’re overmatched and outwitted, then you’ll know it’s a complete system failure and something must done in the offseason to make this team competitive.

There’s a lot more on the line in this game than just the final score.

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