GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Charles Woodson knew all was well the moment he received Green Bay’s practice schedule last week. Coach Mike McCarthy had given players an extra day off Friday so they could enjoy Christmas.
If there was any question about how the Packers would bounce back from a stunning loss at Pittsburgh last week, McCarthy nipped it with one flick of his pencil.
“I don’t remember a time in my career -- college, high school, pros -- when the coach has given you off the whole day for a holiday,” Woodson said. “You just don’t get that opportunity to spend the whole day with your family. That’s a day away from preparation. Most coaches are not going to take you away from preparation. He showed his support in this team and his trust in this team.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell Woodson that many NFL coaches, including all four in the NFC North, designed a similar schedule last week. But from that moment, it was clear to Woodson and the rest of the Packers' locker room that they would stomp an undermanned Seattle team in their final home game of the regular season.
That they clinched a wild-card playoff berth, courtesy Carolina’s stunning 41-9 defeat of the New York Giants, was a bonus. You can say what you want about the level of competition the Packers faced Sunday -- and we will soon -- but there is no debating that the Packers successfully circumvented what could have been a devastating loss.
As a result, they remain one of the NFL’s hottest teams after winning for the sixth time in seven games.
“It’s an impressive body of work, this second half of the season,” McCarthy said. “That’s the truth. That’s the reality, and that has been acknowledged.”
In Pittsburgh, Green Bay made clear they were a playoff-caliber team -- if not one equipped to win a postseason game on the road. And it’s only fair to point out the Seahawks appeared to have given up on this season about three weeks ago. They’ve lost their last three games by a combined score of 106-24, and I thought quarterback Matt Hasselbeck made a measured observation Sunday afternoon.
“They are a good football team,” Hasselbeck said of the Packers. “We made them look really, really good today.”
Indeed, playing the Steelers on the road is much closer to a playoff atmosphere than taking on the Seahawks at home. But before we dig too far into the Packers’ chances to make a run in the NFC playoffs -- “Anything is possible,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said -- we should give them a moment to enjoy their clinching moment. Meanwhile, we can reflect on how they got there.
In many ways, Sunday’s victory provided a high-octane example of how the Packers pointed themselves in the right direction after a 4-4 start.
First, they adjusted their offense to compensate for severe pass-protection issues. Sunday, you saw the fruits of their primary tweaks. Running backs accounted for all six of their touchdowns: Three by Brandon Jackson (one via a screen pass), two for Ryan Grant and one for Ahman Green.
Grant’s 56-yard scoring run in the second quarter officially buried the Seahawks in a 21-3 lead. Over this seven-game stretch, Grant has broken off three scoring runs of 24 yards or longer and has a total of six scores.
“It’s nice to have some of the burden taken off of you,” said Rodgers, who was sacked once Sunday and has taken only 15 during the seven-game stretch. He took 37 over the first eight games of the season.
Indeed, you didn’t hear much from Seattle defensive end Patrick Kerney, who was largely shut down by another improvement the Packers made at midseason. Right tackle Mark Tauscher, who replaced former starter Allen Barbre, held Kerney without a sack and with only one quarterback hit.
From a defensive perspective, meanwhile, the Packers have overwhelmed most opponents with havoc at the line of scrimmage. Sunday, they sacked Hasselbeck three times and intercepted him on four occasions. They’re playing coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme at a high level, rendering moot some early complaints from Woodson and defensive end Cullen Jenkins.
Here’s one anecdote to explain what I’m talking about.
With the Seahawks facing third-and-8 from their 31-yard line in the third quarter, Woodson lined up across from Seahawks receiver Deion Branch in the slot. Woodson noticed tight end Cameron Morrah in the backfield and immediately recognized the upcoming play.
Before the snap, he turned to Packers safety Atari Bigby and filled him in.
“You recognize what a team is doing to you,” Woodson said. “You recognize sets. I’ve seen that set a number of times, and I just let [Bigby] know what they were going to run. Either the ball will go short and I’ll get it, or it will go long and he gets it.”
As it turned out, Hasselbeck overthrew Branch on a seam pattern. Bigby was in place to make the interception.
Those are the types of game-changing plays a well-coached and well-oiled defense makes. Opponents will still find weaknesses, as the Seahawks did Sunday by targeting Packers nickelback Jarrett Bush on a 31-yard pass to receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and a 16-yard touchdown to tight end John Carlson. More often than not, the Packers’ smart defensive plays have outnumbered their mistakes during the second half of the season.
So where does this all leave us? Sunday, it meant a team that changed its defensive scheme in January and significantly altered its offensive scheme in November is now in the playoffs. Its flaws have surfaced against some of its most difficult opponents, Minnesota and Pittsburgh among them, giving us some pause when you consider the Packers’ postseason aptitude.
But in terms of reaching the playoffs, the Packers ultimately minimized those losses and prevented them from consuming their season.
“You’ve got to keep your vision,” Woodson said. “I think most of the guys on this team have done that. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs and a lot of things said. A lot of things were not said. But everybody realizes our ultimate goal. We’ve now got a chance.”