GREEN BAY, Wis. — A month into the season, few people outside of Green Bay would have given the Packers a shot at the NFC North title.
Heck, even the folks in Green Bay could have been forgiven for feeling a little pessimistic.
The injuries were already starting to pile up, and the Packers had been the victims of the Inaccurate Reception. With a losing record five weeks in and the Chicago Bears off to a blazing start, a wild card seemed about the best the Packers could do.
Now look at them. One of the NFL’s hottest teams over the past two months with seven victories in eight games, Green Bay (9-4) can clinch the division title with a win Sunday in Chicago. The No. 2 seed, and the first-round bye that goes with it, is still a possibility, too.
“We’re excited about the opportunities that we continue to create,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “You get what you put into it and our guys have a great frame of mind. It’s a good locker room, it’s a steady locker room. We don’t swing with the highs and lows.
“Special, that’s what we’re in it for,” he added. “We’re not in it just to get to the playoffs or to have a winning season.”
Players and coaches on pretty much every team talk about resiliency, and how they can’t let injuries or losses turn into a distraction.
Or, worse, an excuse. But talk is cheap — just look at some of the records out there — and it’s tough to continue looking ahead week after week.
The Packers, though, have turned it into something of an art form. Few teams have been hit harder by injuries, with the Packers losing more than a dozen starters or projected starters for two or more games. That includes No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings (eight games), perennial Pro Bowler Charles Woodson (six games), sackmaster Clay Matthews (four games) and C.J. Wilson (three games), a cornerstone of their run defense.
Running back Cedric Benson is on injured reserve, as is offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga.
Yet the Packers simply fill the holes and move on. In Sunday night’s 27-20 win over Detroit, it was a rookie, Mike Daniels, who had the fumble return for a score that swung momentum Green Bay’s way.
The go-ahead touchdown was scored by DaJuan Harris, who’d been elevated from the practice squad eight days earlier.
“You can’t sit around and invest a lot of time in guys that you’re not going to have out there,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You’ve got to focus all your attention on the guys you do have.”
The Green Bay resolve starts with McCarthy. Low-key and humble — he joked Monday that his players take their cue from his “boring” press conferences — he is not one for histrionics on the sideline or drama anywhere else.
Circumstances are what they are, and there’s no sense wasting time on anything else. When the Packers lost that game in Seattle on a controversial call, not only did McCarthy refuse to whine or complain, he called the replacement referee who made the wrong call to offer his support.
That attitude has filtered down to the players.
“It says a lot about the locker room leadership,” McCarthy said. “We’ve accomplished some things in the past that we can maybe look back on. What are you to do with your energy? What are we going to do with our time? How are you going to apply it? I think our guys do a good job of it.”
It helps that the Packers have some practice at this. Two years ago, they had so many injuries they were practically pulling guys off the street to fill the lineup.
They wound up winning the Super Bowl.
“They know there’s an expectation level … that they’ve got to be not only accountable to themselves, but accountable to everybody in that room,” Capers said. “So if their number’s called, then they owe it to the guy sitting next to them to be ready to go out and do their job.”
Green Bay’s recent run hasn’t always been pretty; the Packers struggled against Jacksonville, and trailed in both games against Detroit. But aside from a blowout by the Giants, Green Bay has managed to find ways to win.
“I don’t get caught up in statistics,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got nine wins. That’s only statistic I worry about.”
The Packers could make it 10 wins — and a division title — against the Bears, adding extra buzz to a rivalry that’s already the NFL’s best.
And it’s the rivalry, not the spoils that could come with it, that will get Green Bay’s full attention this week, McCarthy said.
“You start to get voice mails from Willie Davis, people like that, early this morning, you know it’s a big game,” McCarthy said. “So we’re focused on beating the Bears down there. It’s a tough place to play. Yes, we’d love to wrap up division and hopefully be playing for more the next two weeks. But this is about the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.”