What a difference a year makes.
Last season, the 14-1 Packers, already assured of home-field advantage and a first round bye, rested a plethora of starters, including quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and ended up playing a fun, but sloppy, game against the Lions. Fast-forward two weeks, and you can make a strong argument that the Packers were far more rusty than they were well-rested as they took a loss to the Giants at home.
This season, the Packers enter their season finale--again facing a division rival with playoff implications for them--with a far different mindset. Gone are the conservative "save them for another day" ideas that came under such harsh criticism last season. In fact, the Packers kept their starters in most of last week's game against the Titans, when they could have sat them down after the first quarter if they had wanted.
The Packers, with something to play for, will likely keep their starters in all game. Yes, they might be risking injury, as they found out last week when Randall Cobb tweaked his ankle on a punt return while up by almost thirty points. But the risk of injuring a player is nothing compared to injuring the momentum the Packers have built up.
Realistically, this team has been remarkably similar to last year's version. They've put together a long streak of wins, but haven't always looked good doing it. In fact, once could make the case in many games this season that they've greatly benefited from the mistakes made by the opposing team, and invariably capitalized on them.
The difference is that the Packers were a team on the decline at the end of 2011. in 2012, they are just hitting their prime at the right time, eerily similar to 2010. With players like Jordy Nelson and Clay Matthews returning at the end of the regular season, and Charles Woodson likely back for the first playoff game, one can't deny that the Packers are perhaps one of the scariest teams in the post-season.
The "boot-to-the-throat" mentality is something Mike McCarthy has been pushing, as evidenced last week. The problem is that, come playoff time, those "gifts" that have been given to us by opposing teams will likely disappear. That might be one of the Packers' greatest assets: the ability to capitalize on mistakes made by the other team.
In all honesty, the Packers really haven't been truly elite on any side of the ball this season--they've just been remarkably above average and compensated for their weaknesses. Aaron Rodgers has had a Pro Bowl season, but has also been sacked 46 times. There hasn't been a consistent running back this season, and the Packer receivers have been a mixed bag of electrifying plays and dropped passes (35 this season).
Special teams have had bright spots (punter Tim Masthay), good spots (Randall Cobb's consistent sure-handed returns), and dim spots (kicker Mason Crosby with historic-level struggles on field goals).
Defensively, the Packers struggled mightily to start the season, with even calls for the ouster of coordinator Dom Capers from some corners. But they've finished with an impressive 46 sacks for a team that wasn't regarded as a strong pass rushing team at the beginning of the season. They've also added 18 interceptions, 6 alone by rookie Casey Hayward. At the beginning of the season, they looked no better than the historically bad defense they finished with last year. To finish the season, they've truly been hitting their stride.
Of course, facing Jay Cutler twice in a year has a way of making your stat line look a little nicer.
In the end, its those sack and interception numbers that jump out at you: the ability of the Packers to capitalize on dumb mistakes made by the other team. The difference, as the Packers found out last year, is that playoff teams teeing it up in the second season don't give you mistakes like the Titans, Lions, or Bears might do in the regular season. The Giants got an early lead and never allowed a Packer team dependent on opportunistic game-changing plays to make any.
The Packers did a good job practicing the right mindset with the Titans last week. Now, they need to do the same against a highly-motivated team on the road. Yes, Christian Ponder might make enough errors to allow a sloppy Packer team to get the win regardless, but that's not the point.
McCarthy is playing it right, putting in his starters and making sure they understand that their job is to win the game now, not to sit and wait for something to turn the game around in the third quarter, a bad habit they had gotten into a few weeks ago. The Packers fell behind in the second quarter in five straight games (Lions, Giants, Vikings, Lions, Bears), and had to fight back to regain the lead in four of them.
And as we know, they never got the lead back in the Giants game. Perhaps this was the motivation the Packers have needed for a long time: to stop needing adversity and their back against the wall to get their focus.
The Packers can make a huge statement to the rest of the NFL today by stifling Adrian Peterson and putting the Vikings away early on their way to a week off. But perhaps far more importantly, they will send a message to themselves, that waiting for the other team to make mistakes is no way to advance in the post-season.