Momentum is a beautiful thing when you have it, and a terrifying factor when you are facing it.
Luckily for the Green Bay Packers, they have it.
Granted, the victories against the Cowboys and Ravens came at Lambeau Field, and the Packers will ultimately be road-bound throughout the playoffs (save for an NFC Championship matchup versus the Eagles). And yes, Arizona pulled multiple starters during last week’s game and “really weren’t trying to win.”
Does that mean the Cardinals were trying to lose?
They claimed they were simply trying to avoid injury, but they weren’t even successful accomplishing that, with injuries to Dominque Rogers-Cromartie, Anquan Boldin, and Calais Campbell—all starters.
And it was pretty evident in that game that the “Go Pack Go” chants weren’t bothering the Packers one bit.
The Packers are not necessarily being written off as a contender in the playoffs, but seemingly every other team in the NFC is being lauded as having a better chance of making it to the big dance than Green Bay, and that’s okay.
The Packers are hopeful that general mindset continues as they advance through the playoffs unnoticed because their offense, defense, and special teams are all ready to dominate, starting with Arizona this Sunday.
On offense, the Packers are absolutely loaded with playmakers. Every one of their top four wide-outs can run every route in the Packers’ playbook.
When their so called “possession” receiver, Jordy Nelson, is running deep down the middle to haul in 51-yard strikes from Aaron Rodgers and when their “deep threat” receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings are consistently catching balls over the middle off of short drag routes for 6-yard pickups, it’s difficult to predict which plays and routes are coming by observing on-the-field personnel.
Furthermore, with the emergence of tight end Jermichael Finley in both the passing and running games, opponents are biting more on play-action out of multiple-tight end, regularly assumed running formations.
This development allows Finley the chance to get behind the defense for big plays.
Ryan Grant is also starting to flash more big-play potential with 3 touchdown runs of +20 yards during this momentum building second half of the season.
Yet, what has probably been the most significant reasoning behind the stellar play of the offense has been the much-improved performance of the offensive line.
Aided by Mike McCarthy’s play-calling, limiting the deep throws while increasing slants and crosses off mostly 3-step and 5-step drops, they've protected Rodgers much better during these last 8 games.
Injuries and shuffling of the offensive line played a role in their inconsistent play early in the season, which is why improvement came almost immediately following the return of the same five guys across the line week-in and week-out.
And with Rodgers playing as well as any quarterback in the league, the Packers are thinking, in the famous words of Matt Hasselbeck, “We want the ball and we’re going to score.”
On defense, the Packers have developed an aggressive attitude. They are pressuring the quarterback, challenging receivers at the line, and exploding through ball-carriers.
Dom Capers has stated over and over again that nothing is more telling about the ability, attitude, and overall teamwork of a defense than its ability to stop the run.
For the 2009 season, the Packers led the league and set a new franchise mark in this category.
They also led the league in turnovers forced, arguably the quickest way to crush the opponent’s morale while building momentum for one’s own offense.
The play of the Packers’ 3-4 defense starts with the men upfront: Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins, and BJ Raji.
These names go mostly unnoticed across the NFL, but the team certainly knows their worth.
Pickett is the steady commander in the middle, stout against the run and eager to take on the double-team.
Raji fits a similar mold, but he adds an ability to disrupt plays and penetrate into the backfield via his bull rush, a move with which he’s simply embarrassed some NFL vets.
Jenkins can be counted on to pressure the quarterback, no matter what the situation is, what the down and distance may be, whether the game is on the line, or who's playing quarterback.
And Jolly can do it all: make plays in the backfield, hold the edge, eat up blockers, bat down passes... As much credit as the linebackers get for the plays they make, it’s the D-lineman who deserve credit first-and-foremost.
Speaking of linebackers, Clay Matthews is a force.
He’s talented, but the reason he’s so good is he just tries harder than the guy across from him on every snap of every game. His motor is unbelievable.
Nick Barnett is also making more plays of late as his reconstructed knee hardly seems to be hindering him anymore.
And then of course, there’s the Packers’ secondary, led by should-be Defensive Player of the Year, Charles Woodson.
He has been sensational this season. Everyone knows about the interceptions, the returns, the forced fumbles and sacks, but what they don’t know is how effective of a tackler he is.
Woodson is listed as a corner, but make no mistake, he tackles with the mindset of a linebacker.
He’ll play the run looking to blow-up a running back. He’ll rove the field from the safety spot and take a tight end head-on in a collision—a battle he usually wins.
He has no fear, and Woodson’s smarts and instincts are just uncanny.
Most of his interceptions come from baiting the quarterback into throwing his way.
He always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else on the field.
His presence will sometimes force the opposing quarterback away from his side of the field, which only opens up opportunities for Nick Collins, Atari Bigby, and Tramon Williams.
The genius of Capers and the skills of the players at his disposal have combined for very memorable defensive showing this season.
On special teams the Packers had been awful most of the season, plain and simple.
They were allowing opponents to accrue big returns at critical junctures, often in the fourth quarter.
Their kicker Mason Crosby was consistently missing short field goals and, their punter's hang time was regressing.
Lately though, the coverage units have been superb.
Crosby hasn’t missed a field goal since the Steelers game, and though Jeremy Kapinos is still struggling with his hang time, the Packers have been punting less thanks to the production on offense, therefore masking Kapinos' shortcomings.
Even Nelson has broken a couple long returns via the kickoff return.
The Packers are really starting to click on every level at just the right time.
The most telling sign, though, that this team is ready to make noise in the playoffs is that this team is tough.
They’re mentally tough.
Their coach is Pittsburgh tough.
Their quarterback is especially tough, and that hasn’t just been revealed by his performance under duress this season.
Rodgers’ toughness was realized last season, when critics were still calling him injury prone, predicting him to miss starts because of it.
He separated his shoulder in Week 4 of 2008 and played through it for the rest of the season, starting every game and silencing most of those critics.
But, the game that truly identified how tough Rodgers was happened on Monday Night Football against the New Orleans Saints.
The Packers were down early and in catch-up mode throughout.
Rodgers threw an interception to a Saints corner who ran the ball down the sideline, eyes fixated on the end zone.
Rodgers came out of nowhere to meet him inside the 5-yard line, lowering his throwing shoulder and absolutely laying out the defender, preventing the score.
Rodgers knocked the Saint off his feet and out of bounds with that same shoulder he hurt back in Week 4, the same one that was still hurting, and probably hurting even more after that hit.
The Saints scored a touchdown shortly after, as was to be expected, extending their lead into a blowout, but Rodgers made a statement with that play.
He quickly took responsibility for the turnover by hustling to the sidelines to prevent the easy score. Delivering that hit with his bum throwing shoulder has forever cemented his toughness into the minds of Packer fans.
Green Bay has four games on the road ahead of them, but they have no doubt in their minds about what they are about to accomplish: winning the Super Bowl.
The Packers have momentum, their fans travel well, and they’re being underestimated.