Aaron Nagler took Packers fans' questions in a Facebook Live chat after Sunday's 31-24 loss in Carolina.
GREEN BAY – Jordy Nelson was not ready to process the reality that awaits these next two weeks. Not yet. Standing in Bank of America Stadium’s visiting locker room, the Green Bay Packers receiver hadn’t had time to consider a January with no playoffs.
Any other year, a loss to the Carolina Panthers might not have been so damaging. The Packers lost to a good team on the road Sunday, hardly an unforgivable sin. In doing so, the Packers showed they were a playoff-caliber team, if not the fierce Super Bowl contender everyone expected.
This is not every other year, of course. Treading water since Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone eight weeks earlier, the Packers faced a must-win game in the middle of December. It was a situation they’ve handled well under coach Mike McCarthy in the past, most recently their run-the-table streak in late 2016. But not this time.
With Sunday’s 31-24 loss at Carolina, the relevant portion of the Packers' season ended. The Atlanta Falcons' 24-21 victory Monday night at Tampa Bay eliminated the Packers (7-7) from playoff contention. They will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Rodgers’ first season as a starter after replacing Brett Favre, who spent that season with the New York Jets. Nelson was a rookie that year.
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Asked what these final two games of 2017 will be like with no playoff contention on the line, Nelson had a hard time answering.
“I haven’t gotten there yet,” Nelson said. “As a football player, I think everyone is week by week. That’s how we’re programmed. I think that’s how we live our life pretty much. It’s obviously part of the situation we’re in, but we’ve still got two games to go out and do our job, and that’s play football and hopefully get two wins.”
Nelson doesn’t know what it will be like to play the Minnesota Vikings this week, and then the Packers' finale at the Detroit Lions, with nothing tangible at stake. It’s uncharted territory for many players in the Packers' locker room, but not all.
Veteran Ahmad Brooks, in his first year with the Packers, spent his past eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Brooks was a starter on three straight teams that advanced to the NFC championship game, including the 49ers team that reached the Super Bowl in 2012. In the past three seasons, the 49ers never finished with a winning record. They won seven games combined in 2015 and '16.
It made for a lot of empty Decembers.
“Right now,” Brooks said, “is all about pride. Why do you do this? Of course, you want to win Super Bowls and make it to the playoffs and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, you do it for yourself. You have to have some type of pride.”
Pride is one thing. Planning for the future is another. In the final two weeks, McCarthy will have to balance using snaps to develop young players with showing veterans the respect they deserve.
Nothing can be gained this season with finishing the final two games strong, but perhaps it can be a springboard into a critical offseason. The Packers seemed to use the momentum of late 2016 early this season. Before Rodgers’ injury, they had the look of a top NFC contender.
Right guard Jahri Evans, who spent his previous 11 seasons with the New Orleans Saints, hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2013. Evans said how the Packers complete their season will be important.
“As a pro,” Evans said, “you’ve just got to work on trying to get better. Getting better at your job, getting better at what you do. That’s what you really focus on doing, is just using that day to get better. Whether it’s in the classroom, on the field, just think about getting better as a pro.”
Evans and Brooks couldn’t have anticipated they’d be in this situation. When they signed one-year deals with the Packers this offseason, they did so with an understanding they’d compete for the Super Bowl. That’s the expectation on a team quarterbacked by Rodgers.
That their season is over before Christmas is a surprise. Entering Sunday, Brooks said he hoped the Packers could find their rhythm with Rodgers’ return, but the quarterback’s lengthy absence left no margin for error. Now there are two games left, and no playoffs at the end.
To finish out their season the right way, Brooks said, the Packers must take the same approach they did in their previous 14 games, even if the work won’t be rewarded.
“Just continue to do what we’ve been doing all year,” Brooks said. “Continuing to prepare for the game. That’s the main thing. Prepare for our next opponent, which is the Minnesota Vikings. Prepare for them, and then once game time comes around, go out and perform.”