GREEN BAY – Ryan Pickett leaned back and laughed one of his bowl-full-of-jelly belly laughs. The Green Bay Packers veteran defensive tackle has been doing this for a dozen years now, and he knows the cliché. Every year, no matter if it comes in Week 4 or Week 8 or – in the case of the 2012 Packers – in Week 10, players always say that the bye week arrives at just the right time.
But in the wake of Sunday’s 31-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals – a game in which the already injury-depleted Packers lost star outside linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring), leading receiver Jordy Nelson (ankle) and right tackle Bryan Bulaga (hip) – there was no denying that a bye is just what the doctor ordered, pun very much intended.
“I promise, it ain’t never been more true than this time right now,” Pickett replied, still laughing. “To have the bye week now is perfect. Our bodies, that’s nine games in a row, I think it’s at a perfect time for us. We’ve got two weeks to get them right, get them closer to playing. And guys that have been hurt before that, we have a chance to get them back. So this bye is at the perfect time, the ideal time for us.”
The Packers enter the bye week riding a four-game winning streak and at 6-3 in a reasonably good position given their uneven start – not to mention the controversial loss at Seattle on Sept. 24 – and injury situation. Before losing Matthews, Nelson and Bulaga Sunday, the Packers were already without running back Cedric Benson (foot), safety Charles Woodson (collarbone), wide receiver Greg Jennings (abdominal/groin), cornerback Sam Shields (ankle), linebacker Nick Perry (knee) and defensive end Jerel Worthy (concussion) – and those are only the players who are eligible to still play this season.
And yet, they handed the game Cardinals (4-5) their fifth consecutive loss after their 4-0 start, put up 31 points on a defense that came in No. 4 in scoring defense and No. 6 in total defense, and made sure the same lack-of-energy malaise that afflicted them in last week’s uninspired victory over Jacksonville.
Perhaps that’s because coach Mike McCarthy dangled a couple of extra days off as a carrot – the players were excused postgame and don’t return to practice until a week from Monday – and made sure his team didn’t trip over itself with the first-half finish line in view.
“It’s amazing what they’ll do for an extra day off,” joked McCarthy, whose team’s next game is Nov. 18 at Detroit. “I was very proud of the football team, the way they battled through a lot of situations dealing with injuries throughout the game.
“Good team victory. We need to get healthy. That’s what bye weeks are for. We’re 6-3 and we’ve got time to evaluate, step back and clean some things up and get set for the third quarter as we head to Detroit.”
After their vacation, the Packers will return to work with five of their final seven games against NFC North division foes: Home-and-home dates with the Lions and Minnesota Vikings, plus a game at division-leading Chicago (7-1), whose only loss this season was delivered by the Packers.
“We kind of control our own destiny here,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who managed to have an “off” game while throwing four touchdown passes (14 of 30, 218 yards, one interception, 96.9 passer rating). “We have a chance to make a run at the division title, which is always our first goal when we start of the season, to get a home playoff game and kind of go from there.
“We're 6-3. We know we'd like to get to 10 wins as quickly as possible and we can start talking about the postseason. But we're going to try and find some consistency, especially on offense. The defense, when they play like they did today, are going to give us a good chance to win every week."
On offense, the Packers failed to gain a first down on six of their possessions. After building a 21-7 halftime lead on Rodgers’ touchdown passes to Randall Cobb (13 yards), Cobb again (21 yards) and James Jones (28 yards), the Packers got the ball to start the third quarter and squandered the good field position provided by Cobb’s 44-yard kickoff return, going three-and-out. Then, after Erik Walden intercepted a tipped John Skelton pass, they went three-and-out again, settling for a 33-yard Mason Crosby field goal.
After another three-and-out punt, Skelton capped an eight-play 87-yard drive with a 31-yard touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald (six catches, 74 yards) to pull within 24-14. When the offense went three-and-out yet again, the Cardinals drove to the Packers’ 2-yard line before settling for a Jay Feely field goal, pulling Arizona to within 24-17 with 50 seconds left in the third quarter. Another three-and-out could have spelled big trouble and a replay of the team’s Oct. 7 loss at Indianapolis might not have been far behind.
“I thought we battled. Our guys hung in there and fought,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “If you look at the five games that we’ve lost, the one thing that’s consistent is that we have had opportunities to make plays and we haven’t done it. Green Bay is a good football team, but today was as much about what we didn’t do as what they did do.”
And what the Packers did do was put the game away with one play: On the final play of the third quarter, on second-and-4 from their own 28-yard line, Rodgers lined up in the shotgun and play-action faked a handoff to Alex Green. The play-fake worked – thanks to the Packers’ season-best productivity in the run game (39 rushes, 176 yards) – and tight end Tom Crabtree snuck behind ex-Packers linebacker Paris Lenon, caught a perfectly-placed Rodgers pass at the Green Bay 43 and was off to the races en route to a 72-yard touchdown that pushed the Packers’ lead to 31-17.
"Oh, it was huge. It was huge,” Rodgers said of Crabtree’s touchdown. “The crowd wasn't really into it at that point. We needed a spark there. (The Cardinals) had made a push there in the third quarter. (What) a big play to end the quarter, to get us some momentum. We would have liked to finish that thing off and get it to a three-score game, but we didn't play well enough on offense and didn't play well enough personally."
The defense took over from there, forcing back-to-back three-and-outs before stiffening to get a fourth-down stop at the Green Bay 34 on the Cardinals’ final possession. After that, vacation had begun.
“I think you always need a bye. It’s important to always take a step back and get healthy. Everybody’s usually beat up going into the bye but we’ve had some significant injuries – too many for our liking,” McCarthy said.
“So, yes, we’re very pleased to be at the bye right now. 6-3 is the position we are in and that’s where we’re focused on. That’s the last thing I told the team: I think it’s important for everybody to take a step back, look at why we’re 6-3, the things that we did to get us here at 6-3, pro and con, and, more importantly, be ready to commit and get after the things that we need to get after to improve.
“We’ve got a four-game winning streak. We’ve done this before. It’s important for everybody to step away from it. Family time is highly encouraged. Everybody thinks this just a time to get healthy but it’s a time to get healthy mentally, spiritually and get yourself ready for the grind, and the grind starts in Detroit.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 540 ESPN on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.