“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” Vince Lombardi
Watching the Green Bay Packers make 48-21 mince meat (or minced poultry) of the Atlanta Falcons this past Saturday evening, one could not help but be struck be the utter totality of the effort.
After a bit of a slow start that saw the Pack fall behind 14-7 (after an Eric Weem's 102-yard kick return at the 12-minute mark of the second quarter) Green Bay proceeded to outscore the NFC's top seeded 'Birds 41-7 over the final 42 minutes in a jaw-dropping performance that had to grab the attention of every NFL fan on the planet.
Coming into the season the Packers were co-favored with the Minnesota Vikings to win the NFC North. Neither did as the Chicago Bears emerged, but Green Bay was somehow able to overcome a near season-long plague of injuries to get hot at the right time and now find themselves a single game away from the big dance in Dallas on Feb. 7.
Let's take a look at how they got to this point and while we're at it, join the Green Bay Packer nation in digesting a few pearls of wisdom from the man himself, NFL legend Vince Lombardi.
“Once a man has made a commitment to a way of life, he puts the greatest strength in the world behind him. It’s something we call heart power. Once a man has made this commitment, nothing will stop him short of success.”
Navigating thru a precarious, up and down 9-5 season including a recent brutal 7-3 loss to the Lions the week before, the Packers hit something of a tipping point in their week 15 Gillete Stadium match with the high-flying New England Patriots.
Aaron Rodgers was out with a concussion, a situation that could have lingered for the remainder of the season, and third-year man Matt Flynn got the start over center.
Green Bay ended up leading most of the way and while they ended up on the short end of 31-27 score, the team had to realize with Rodgers at the helm they may well have been able to defeat the Pats in Foxboro, an indication they would be able to play with any team in the league upon his return.
The following week Rodgers did make it back in a must-win game against the Giants, and the Pack rolled. In the season finale against the rival Bears, the two teams slugged it out defensively and the Pack prevailed once more gaining entry into the all important post season on the type of mini confidence-building run that makes a NFL team exceedingly lethal at this time of the year.
“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”
Packer Head Coach Mike McCarthy's name rarely comes up when the best field leaders in the league are mentioned but watching him call the plays these past several weeks you get the very clear idea this is a man who has built a football team in his image; fast, physical and exceedingly quick-strike capable.
In addition, amongst the 20 some odd seemingly-able coaches McCarthy has on his staff, he has the exceeding benefit of Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers very specific presence.
One of the best in the game, Capers has helmed a number of prolific defenses, and he has built a top unit in Green Bay. Over the second half of the season, the fast improving Packer D allowed a paltry 10 points per game and went into the postseason playing on a level commensurate with Pack's ever explosive offensive attack.
“Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it character in action.”
Having survived a brutal regular season, the Packers entered the 2011 post season as a Wild Card with moderate expectations. They would head into the not at all friendly confines of Philadelphia and face a Michael Vick-led offense capable, at least in spurts, of running circles around the league's best defenses.
But not Green Bay's, who flaunt the best pair of cover corners in the NFC in Charles Woodsen and Tramon Williams, a front three anchored by the massive like of NT B.J. Raji, as well as fleet outside linebackers, A.J. Hawk and the frequently astonishing NFL legacy, Clay Matthews.
Against Philly, the Packers bent a little allowing 292 passing yards to Michael Vick and keeping the ever-dangerous DeSean Jackson off the board. Also, Green Bay was able to hold the Philly running game in almost total check.
On offense, Rodgers was efficient throwing for three touchdowns while improving youngster James Starks kept up the hard-running style that has become integral to the Packer effort with 123 yards on 23 carries.
Green Bay managed the clock and ended up managing the Eagles as well in an impressive 21-16 victory.
“You never win a game unless you beat the guy in front of you. The score on the board doesn’t mean a thing. That’s for the fans. You’ve got to win the war with the man in front of you. You’ve got to get your man.”
The rivalry between the Packers and Bears began in 1921 and has grown to be the league's longest with 181 regular season games.
What's pretty amazing though is this Sunday's NFC Championship Game in Chicago will be only the second playoff contest between the squads.
The previous meeting was in 1941, only seven days after the bombing in Pearl Harbor. The teams were tied with identical 10-1 records at the end of regular season and played a divisional tie breaker in Chicago.
Packers receivers, including hall-of-famer Don Hutson, had the drops that day allowing three potential touchdowns to elude their collective grasp and that turned out to be the difference in a 33-14 Bears win.
At least as far as receiver drops go, it's not likely we'll see the same result this Sunday at Soldier Field.
"I firmly believe that any man’s finest hours – his greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear – is that moment when he has worked his heart out in good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”
The Bears have managed to fly under the radar for most of the year despite leading the NFC North from about mid-point of the season on.
A lot of that has been cause and effect. Cutler and the Chicago offense was battered, bruised and sorely humiliated against the Giants in week four and it took a very long time for NFL observers to take the team with any degree of seriousness for some time thereafter.
They appeared to right the ship though in the weeks to come ascending to 9-3 but then New England came into town on a blizzard-swept day and annihilated them once more, 36-7. And even having earned at least a first-round bye, a home field berth in round two, (which has since turned out to be home field throughout), few people outside of Chicago consider them anything more than a team that just happened to be in the right place at the right time most of the year.
Battering the woeful Seahawks has not improved the perception but a win against the suddenly blazing hot Packers would.
“Winning is not a sometime thing…it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while…you don’t do the right thing once in a while…you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.”
Of course the Packers have digested this last Lombardi principle in full and have no intention of letting up in the least this weekend at Soldier Field.
We like them in a big way. The Bears have repeatedly proven themselves susceptible to airborne attacks and unless they drape themselves all over Rodgers they should not expect a repeat of the season-ending low scoring affair.
On that same afternoon Bear Q.B. Jay Cutler, (who played almost the entire game for god only knows what reason), proved himself entirely unable to deal with the Packer combo of intense pressure and latex tight coverage (out of the premier secondary in the NFC, probably the entire league.) We surmise it will very likely take a Mike Martz miracle for them to experience dramatic improvement this weekend.
That having been said, the elements may come into play. You never know what kind of day you'll get in Chicago in the latter part of January and that might be just about the only thing to slow the Pack.
But not enough. Green Bay over the Bears 27- 17.
On to Dallas then, but that's a story for another day.