You can say a lot of things about Mike McCarthy's Green Bay Packers: Super Bowl Champions, Quarterback King-Makers, Prolific Passing Games, Opportunistic Defenses.
But one trait that has defined this team since McCarthy took over in 2006 still looms large: the Packers seem to need their back against the wall to play at their best. In other words, they need a chip on their shoulder in order to play inspired football. This isn't all a bad thing, to be sure. There are plenty of teams out there that would give their left tackle for the ability to rally themselves from the pit of despair to championship-caliber play.
But, as I said a few weeks ago, sometimes it would be nice for the Packers not to need so much adversity in order to persevere through adversity.
Certainly, the end of 2011 highlighted what happens when the Packers seem to have everything working on on their side--defending Super Bowl Champions, 13-0, and MVP and two DPOY winners manning both sides of the line. But when everything was going great, the Packers succumbed to what can probably be best stated as their own worst enemy: themselves. They were dealing with far fewer injuries than they did in 2010 or this season. But as the playoffs rolled closer, the Packers lost their stride, culminating in a flaccid, uninspired loss at home to the wild-card Giants, whom the Packers face again today.
It was a role-reversal from the season before: the Giants were the desperate, clawing chip-on-their-shoulder team going into other people's home fields and wreaking havoc on pure emotion and synergy, while the Packers were the overconfident team looking past their opponent to the following week.
What happens over the rest of 2012 will rest largely upon a lot of factors: how the Packers handle their injuries (and returning players from injuries), fixing the issues of pass protection and field goal kicking, and perhaps figuring out a reasonable balance between the run and pass. But perhaps the most important issue is the least tangible: can the Packers find a reason to keep winning all the way through the regular season and into the playoffs, while facing teams that increasingly have their own rallying points.
Case in point: the Packers had a very uninspired preseason and start of the regular season, giving rise to concerns that the listless attitude was still carrying over from last January's playoff loss. But McCarthy's team took advantage of two rallying points to turn the 2012 season around. The first was the righteous indignation that rose from the marred final call in the Seattle game, giving a clearly undeserved win to the Seahawks and stirring up emotion among the fans and players alike--inspiring a come-from-behind win against the Saints the following week.
But, the rally was short-lived, and the Packers were humiliated by the lowly Indianapolis Colts the following week, dropping them to 2-3 and into last place in the NFC North. Naturally, all hell broke loose. Fans screamed and howled. Pundits declared the Packers DOA. And realistically, it was going to take a monumental effort for the Packers to claw their way back into playoff contention--even moreso to reclaim the NFC North title--and it sure didn't seem like a team that loses to the 'Suck for Luck" Colts were the team to do it.
But, as I've said, the Packers seem to become most resilient when their backs are against the wall, and once again, McCarthy turned it around, with a convincing victory over the then-dominant Texans and rattling off five wins in a row to do exactly what most of us figured was impossible: a return to the top of the division standings. Aaron Rodgers told us to "Shhhhhhh...", as if that loss to the Colts had never happened. Perhaps he knew it himself: it just took hitting rock bottom for the Packers to return to their derring-do ways.
But now, the Packers face a home stretch against teams with their own motivations for the playoffs. Tonight, the Packers face a Giants team that is looking to fend off the Cowboys and Redskins, knowing the likelihood of any wild card team coming out of the NFC East is remote at best.
They will face a Viking team that stood atop the division for weeks, only now to find their grip slipping away, needing a division win desperately to keep their postseason hopes alive.
They will face a Lions team that, while out of the playoff hunt, may be motivated by an equally egregious blown call to the Packers' Seattle blown call. Add to that the desire for the Lions to avenge the loss that ended their playoff hopes, and it could well be yet another tough game.
In fact, the only game left on the schedule that the Packers may feel they could let up a little is the game with the fading Tennessee Titans, and we all know what happens when the Packers "let up a little" against lesser competition. My point is now that the Packers have clawed their way back to the top, they need to find the motivation to keep themselves there, especially against teams that are just as motivated (if not moreso) to beat the Packers for their own playoff lives. Even last week's win against the Lions was a squeaker, needing a fourth-quarter comeback to pull out the late victory...against a team that, quite simply, doesn't know how to put it all together.
The Packers do know how to put it all together, but the times they do it come in streaks, another highlight of McCarthy's tenure as head coach. Since he became head coach in 2006, no NFL head coach has reached so many dizzying heights, while punctuated by plummeting lows. One thing you can say about Mike McCarthy when his time in Green Bay is done: it's been a wonderful roller coaster ride. Including playoffs, here are McCarthy's streaks, in order, from the time he's started in Green Bay until today.
19-0 (Super Bowl win after a 6-0 conclusion to 2010) (1.00)
4-5 (playoff loss) (.444)
In other words, this winning streak--or, at least, the pattern of winning most of our games--could last all the way to the end of the playoffs. Or, like last year, it could last right up to just about the end of the season. Or, it could end today against the Giants. On average, these streaks last for about 8.8 games before either going north or going south.
In the end, much of coaching comes down to all the little things that Coach McCarthy has talked about for years: working on the pad level, executing the plays, getting things "cleaned up". It's all the tangible aspects of coaching that are easily observed and easily evaluated. But, encompassing all of those are the intangibles, the motivation, the inspiration, the reasons for creating team synergy and rising above to more than the sum of your parts.
The last five games have proven that, despite a training room that must look like a M*A*S*H unit, the Packers have risen above injuries and pulled off wins against teams with tons of talent and momentum and against teams with everything to play for. And they've done it with backups and rookies filling in for solid veteran starters. It's impressive what the Packers can do when their back is against the wall.
The last six games will define whether McCarthy can keep that momentum going when the Packers already have the upper hand in the standings. After all, how can your back be against the wall when you're winning the division?
C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan and feature writer at CheeseheadTV.com. Catch him as a co-host on the weekly live podcast Cheesehead Radio at Packerstalk.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Tundravision.