GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur keeps insisting his team has more in it.
Largely in response to a season-long string of uneven performances by the Green Bay Packers, the first-year coach says almost weekly that the best is yet to come.
Packers fans have remained fairly patient — a 13-3 record and a No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs makes that easier — while waiting for Green Bay to play to the level its record would indicate. The time for patience, however, has run out. If the Packers are indeed a championship contender, they’ll have to start playing like it.
Like, say, Sunday.
Including their NFC divisional round game with the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Packers potentially are looking at three consecutive playoff games where just OK won’t be good enough. For a team that has put together a strong, 60-minute, both-sides-of-the-ball performance only once or twice this season, that has to be a concern.
Or a goal. Which is how the Packers are looking at it after sitting out the first weekend of the playoffs.
“The way a team works is you always strive for excellence, you know what I mean?” guard Billy Turner said. “As a lot of people know, there’s no one that’s perfect on this Earth and there’s no perfect football team. There’s one team that has gone (undefeated) and that was the Dolphins in ’72. With the exception of that, everyone drives for perfection. There’s definitely gains and strides that could be made and I think that us being able to have this bye week has definitely helped us to progress in that area of our game, whatever that may be. There’s definitely nothing that I think we’re horrible at. I think there’s a lot of things we can get better at. I think we’re still on that rise going towards that peak.”
Most teams build as the season goes on, adding to their playbook and honing their execution as the weeks go by, and the Packers have shown definite growth during their current five-game winning streak. Momentum and good health are two of the most important factors at playoff time and the Packers have both.
They also have a legion of skeptics who are all asking the same things about a Packers team whose best asset has been finding a way to win in close games. If the Packers haven’t located the sweet spot after 16 games, why would anyone expect them to find it now? What if they’ve maxed out their talent and there is no more room for growth?
To a man, the Packers say they can find another gear or two. But when asked where that improvement will come from, they’re a bit sketchy on the details.
“I just think (it’s) putting four quarters of consistent football in all three phases,” LaFleur said. “It certainly hasn’t felt like we’ve accomplished that, although we’ve found a way. That’s what’s a credit to those guys in that locker room is they find a way to come out on top. But I just think in terms of the consistency in all three phases for four quarters.”
Finding consistency won’t be easy, starting with the game against the feisty Seahawks, another team that has thrived in close games. Green Bay is 8-1 in games decided by eight points or less, Seattle is 11-2. Including its playoff victory at Philadelphia last week, Seattle is 8-1 in road games. The Packers are 6-2.
The biggest difference between the teams is that the Packers are fit as a fiddle while the Seahawks have lost key players at running back, offensive line and several spots on defense. Also, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is 0-3 at Lambeau, all since 2015.
Still, there are reasons to think the Packers could raise their game in the playoffs. They have rushed for 100 or more yards in four of their past five games. During that time, the defense has allowed 14.2 points per game and held three of the five opponents under 100 yards rushing. On special teams, late addition Ty Ervin has added life to the return game.
The biggest area of uncertainty remains the passing game, though. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his pedestrian (except for Davante Adams) group of wide receivers and tight ends simply haven’t achieved any degree of consistency. Some of that is due to LaFleur’s ever-changing game plans, some to Rodgers’ sudden lack of accuracy and some to a group of receivers who lack speed and drop too many balls. Since the receivers won’t be getting any faster, any improvement will have to come from LaFleur and Rodgers.
“I think there’s still so much to be done,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “From an offensive perspective, now is the time when we really want to get rolling. It’s one of those things where I think we’ve left a lot out on the field and we need to capitalize on those things to get to where we want to get.”
The road will only get more difficult should the Packers get past the dangerous Seahawks. In the NFC Championship Game, they will face No. 1-seeded San Francisco, widely considered the most complete team in the conference.
But the only team the Packers need to worry about is the Packers. They’ve put themselves in a great position, but to reach the Super Bowl they have to find a new level of efficiency.
“I think that’s on both sides,” defensive end Dean Lowry said. “I think we’ve yet to play really a full, complete game where offense and defense play four quarters really well. We’re definitely an ascending team. We’ve shown that we can be dominant at times. We’ve just got to put it all together.”
There’s no time like the present.
<&rdpStrong>Packers vs. Seahawks: Three things to watch</&rdpStrong>
1. 'HE’S GOT TO BE A-ROD’
Aaron Rodgers (above) has taken more slings and arrows from fans and national media this season for his un-Rodgers-like statistics than perhaps ever before. With a passer rating that was the third-lowest of his career as a starter and a completion percentage that was the second-lowest, rumors of the Packers two-time NFL MVP quarterback’s demise got plenty of attention, even if other factors may have been at work. Regardless, whatever the reasons, his numbers were down.
“I love winning and whatever it takes for us to win, that’s the most important thing,” Rodgers said at midweek. “I know how difficult a couple of those years were when we weren’t winning and how the last couple years were here. Winning is a cure-all, and if you truly care about the squad and embrace your role, then you feel like you’re part of something special. And I feel like that I have been this year. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Rodgers also said several weeks ago that with the Packers’ winning formula of running the ball effectively and playing good defense, he was no longer required to throw 40 touchdown passes each season. A 13-3 record certainly showed that, but in the playoffs — against another Super Bowl-winning quarterback in Russell Wilson — Rodgers’ best will be required, be it against the Seahawks or in the NFC Championship Game if the Packers advance. And now’s as good a time as any to play at his optimal level, while staying within the confines of the offense.
“The defense has played so well. When you look at their season, it’s been about the defense and what they’ve done,” said Rodgers’ former Super Bowl XLV teammate Charles Woodson in a phone conversation during the week. “So Aaron’s really kind of been able to take a back seat to that and he hasn’t had to carry the team and at times he has in the past.
“I think for him, I think it’s going to be important for him to go out there and truly dominate and be that player. He’s got to be A-Rod. He’s got to be that guy. Of course the defense has been playing well, but this is his show. It’s important for him to go out there and perform.”
2. DK is A-OK
Coming out of Ole Miss with a neck injury and a less-than-stellar scouting report on his route-running, DK Metcalf (above) fell all the way to the final pick in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Nearly eight months later, though, he’s emerged as a rising star at the position, is coming off a breakout 160-yard performance in the Seahawks’ NFC Wild Card win at Philadelphia and has Packers coach Matt LaFleur thinking back to his sit-down with Metcalf in Indianapolis last February and wishing he was in Green Bay’s wide receivers room.
“He’s so big and physical,” LaFleur said during his conference call with Seattle-area reporters at midweek. “I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do. He can run every route. He’s really fast. I was really impressed with him when I got a chance to sit down with him at the Combine. He’s gone out there and done it. Just for what he’s done as a rookie, I think it’s been pretty impressive. I think he’s going to be one of those true elite receivers, a true number one in the game. I think he’s got a really bright future.”
With an injury-riddled offensive line — one that includes starting left tackle Duane Brown (knee) and backup George Fant (groin) as game-time decisions — and a running game that was No. 4 in the NFL during the regular season but now is relying in part on a just-out-of-retirement Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks’ hopes likely rest on Wilson’s ability to get the ball downfield to Metcalf and veteran Tyler Lockett.
“Sure, and especially with a guy that probably throws the best deep ball in the league,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine replied when asked if Metcalf’s downfield playmaking ability was a concern. “You cannot make a mistake in coverage deep against the Seahawks because (Wilson) will see and they have the guys that can go get it. All those guys can run and even under duress he’ll throw it up knowing they can run under it. So we’ll have to make sure that coverage-wise when communication is required that we over communicate. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that lately.”
3. JAMAAL IS BAAAACK
While Aaron Jones may be the star of the Packers’ backfield with his first 1,000-yard season, 19 total touchdowns and 1,558 total yards from scrimmage, the value of an effective No. 2 option was on display during the Packers’ regular-season finale at Detroit, when Jamaal Williams (above) was inactive with a shoulder injury. Now healthy after a bye week to recuperate, Williams is raring to go in his first playoff game.
“I’m excited. You can’t see it in my face because I’m doing such a good job of concealing it,” Williams joked at midweek. “It’s just really about us being prepared, ready to go and staying focused. We had that week off to get mentally focused and get our bodies right. Now, it’s time to go.”
Consistent with LaFleur’s offensive approach to not have Rodgers carry the load alone, getting the running game revved up is surely part of the Packers’ game plan, especially against a Seattle defense that finished the regular season 22nd in the 32-team NFL against the run. The Packers can certainly control the clock and keep Wilson on the bench with an effective ground game, and while Jones will carry the load, LaFleur made it very clear that Williams will get plenty of work, too.
“I think it’s absolutely huge (to have Williams back),” LaFleur said. “He’s been such an important part to our offense all season long, not only running the football, but being in there in some of those passing situations. He’s a heck of a blocker, and we’re going to need him. And he’s going to get a lot of action this week.”
The Seahawks, meanwhile, will hope that Lynch, who less than a month ago was in the parking lot of Oakland Alameda County Coliseum pouring tequila shots before the Raiders’ final game, and Travis Homer can be productive in the run game. In his two games back, Lynch carried 12 times for 34 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season finale against San Francisco and six times for just 7 yards and a touchdown last week against the Eagles.
“I think the defenses did a decent job against him, but I think you saw just on the touchdown run what he’s capable of,” Pettine said of Beast Mode. “We don’t see him as a guy that’s not capable of doing what he’s done in the past. He’s certainly on our radar.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.