GREEN BAY – Za’Darius Smith was inside the Green Bay Packers locker room, back turned to his stall, disinterested with the shirt he held in his hands. Only a few minutes had passed since another win, another heart-stopping close call, and Smith was drumming up some joy.
“Eleven and three,” Smith kept saying, elongating the syllables. “Partyyyy tiiiime!”
In this room, Smith was preaching to a choir. Jamaal Williams swayed and smiled, beaming like always. Conversations were laced with giggles. Across the room, veteran tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari teased rookie left guard Elgton Jenkins’ enthusiasm.
Party time, indeed.
It was hard to tell – impossible, really – how close the Packers had come to disaster only moments before. That their 21-13 win against the rival Chicago Bears, in a game they led 21-3 at the end of the third quarter, fell one yard shy of potential overtime. That this was the same path they’ve followed most of this season, the same roller coaster, their identity found in the maddening inconsistency during games, but also the consistent winning.
“You’re never disappointed with a win,” safety Adrian Amos said shortly after eliminating his former team from the playoffs. “So as long as we get wins, that’s great. But we just have to keep that momentum.”
Keeping momentum was an elusive objective Sunday. The Packers took control early, no thanks to a dropped potential touchdown pass from struggling receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the game’s first play. Aaron Rodgers hit MVS in stride for what should have been a 70-yard bomb, but the football passed straight through his hands.
No matter, the Packers scored on their second possession, a 29-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Davante Adams on fourth-and-4. Then they muddled through the rest of the first half, crossing into Chicago territory three times but getting no points. Then they looked as good as they had all season to start the third quarter, jumping out to that 21-3 lead with consecutive touchdown drives longer than 65 yards. Then they punted on their final five possessions, including four straight three-and-outs to end the game.
It was the pattern of an EKG machine, all spikes and plummets. Same, really, as they’ve played all season. They are 6-1 in single-possession games, effectively riding a hot hand of fortune.
“I think,” cornerback Tramon Williams said, “we create some of our own breaks.”
That, perhaps more than anything, explains why the Packers are 11-3, at the precipice of a first-round bye. Amos’ end-zone interception at Chicago in Week 1. Kevin King’s end-zone interception against Minnesota in Week 2. An illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty against Detroit in Week 6. Their goal-line stand against Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey on the final play of Week 10.
“I'm not making any excuses for us,” Bulaga said, “because we need to be better in those situations. But at the same time, the record is what it is. I'm not going to apologize and hang my head for being 11-3. I'm just not going to do it. It's hard to win in this league. A lot of guys in this locker room haven't won a lot of games the last two years.
“We're 11-3 now, and no one's apologizing for it."
Still, the close calls keep coming.
There was Tarik Cohen on Sunday, lateraling to quarterback Mitch Trubisky at the 21-yard line. Trubisky lateraling to tight end Jesper Horsted at the 15. Horsted inside the 10, close to the 5, receiver Allen Robinson uncovered to his right.
Defensive back Chandon Sullivan tackled Horsted from behind before he could lateral again. The Bears tight end fumbled forward, the football trickling perilously close to the goal line, down to the 1. That’s where Tramon Williams fell on it, finally, mercifully ending this Packers win.
But what if Horsted had pitched to Robinson earlier?
“They had something,” Williams said. “It was close. I think everybody saw that.”
These are the “what ifs” the Packers haven’t had to answer this season, because they keep breaking their way. Maybe it’s a team of destiny, the path unfolding before them after so many seasons of having the carpet yanked from under their feet. Or maybe it’s a team destined to have this magical season, with all these wins that can’t be disappointing, only to fizzle out in the playoffs.
Only time will tell.
What was clear Sunday, inside that Lambeau Field locker room filled with excitement and laughter, is these Packers are loving the hell out of every minute.
“I think after a win, if you're hanging your head,” Bulaga said, his voice trailing off. “It's OK to be motivated and a little disappointed that we didn't do what we needed to do there at the end of the game, but to walk out of this locker room all sad about it, I'm definitely not going to do that. I mean, that's a damn good defense with damn good players.
“So I'm not going to walk out of here all upset. I'm pretty happy, actually."