GREEN BAY - Don’t flinch.
It’s a saying that University of Wisconsin athletic director – and, at least for the time being, football coach once again – Barry Alvarez used throughout the 16 years he coached the Badgers. He became so synonymous with the phrase that it became the title of his autobiography.
To Alvarez, it meant that, when things invariably didn’t go your way at some point in the season, don’t flinch from the plan in place and deal with adversity as it comes.
And although the saying is Alvarez’s, the Green Bay Packers have lived by it this season.
A year after going 15-1, dealing with a modest injury report and getting booted out of the postseason in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, this year’s team has fought its way through so much adversity and come out on the other side, positioning themselves so that a win against the Chicago Bears on Sunday gives them a second straight NFC North title.
Consider their ability to bounce back from tough losses: A week after having a game stolen from them in Seattle on the “Fail Mary”, the Packers rebounded in a must-win situation beating the New Orleans Saints 28-27 to even their record at 2-2.
Two weeks later, after blowing an 18-point second half lead to the Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay rolled into Houston to take on the undefeated Texans. All the Packers did was put together their best performance of the season, as Aaron Rodgers threw six touchdown passes in a 42-24 victory.
The victory over Houston ignited a five-game winning streak that came to a screeching halt with a 38-10 loss to the New York Giants. But again, the team rebounded with an important victory against the Minnesota Vikings the next week.
Or, consider their ability to overcome debilitating injuries: By the time the Packers played Houston they were already without, among others, receiver Greg Jennings, running back Cedric Benson and nose tackle B.J. Raji.
Having already lost starting linebacker Desmond Bishop for the year to a hamstring injury in the preseason, his backup D.J. Smith would join him on the injured reserve with a knee injury suffered against the Texans. Cornerback Sam Shields left that game with an ankle injury and didn’t play again until last week against the Detroit Lions.
They would lose their defensive leader, Charles Woodson, to a broken collarbone the following week against the St. Louis Rams – and he still hasn’t been cleared to play. Two weeks later, they took a double hit against the Arizona Cardinals, losing starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga for the season with a hip injury, while a pulled hamstring has forced linebacker Clay Matthews to miss the last four games.
Through it all, the Packers have not only survived, but thrived.
“I think our coaches do a great job of preparing everyone on the roster,” tight end Tom Crabtree said. “Whether you’re a starter or a special teams guy they prepare everybody to be ready to play. Offense, defense special teams. And guys are stepping up and filling those roles when needed.”
Consider their recent ability to overcome within individual games:
After jumping out to a 10-point lead the Vikings in Week 13, the Green Bay defense allowed 14 straight points and the offense was struggling. But there was no panic, and the Packers used a strong running game to reel off 13 straight points of their own to win, 23-14.
Then last week, the Lions’ offense appeared unstoppable on its first two drives of the game and jumped out to a 14-0 lead. But the Green Bay defense settled down, scored a touchdown on Mike Daniels’ fumble return and the Packers’ running game took control again in a 27-20 triumph.
“(Coach McCarthy) definitely stresses to continue to run, continue to play, continue to fight through whatever,” outside linebacker Dezman Moses said. “That’s what we try to do. Even when things come up, obstacles that are out of our control. We just have to continue to do our job and get the outcome we want and that’s the only way to go about it.”
“Keep trying to get better each week,” safety Morgan Burnett said of the team’s mentality. “Keep trying to find ways to finish from the first quarter all the way to the fourth quarter. Just finish.”
Finish has been a word on a lot of players’ lips lately.
“That’s definitely a word you hear pop up a lot in our meetings,” Crabtree said. “I know in offense and special teams we talk about ‘finishing.’ That little extra bit of effort and intensity kind of help put you over the top even when you hit some tough patches.”
The Packers should be able to lean on their experiences when they undoubtedly face similar issues in the final three weeks of the regular season and a likely playoff run.
“It helps out,” Burnett said. “You know going into every game there is going to be adverse situations. You know that going into a game, so how as a team are you going to try to overcome those adverse situations. And being in those adverse situations helps you out as a team. It brings us closer together and you know you’re going to overcome it.”
By their own admission, the Packers didn’t face much adversity last season. They won their first 13 games before losing to Kansas City in Week 15. They bounced back the following week, but seemed unprepared to deal with the large deficit they faced in the playoffs against the Giants.
Meanwhile, comparisons between the 2012 and 2010 Packers have been commonplace. That group had tough losses and significant injuries but overcame them and won the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl title.
But there’s no guarantee history will repeat itself.
“Coach (Mike) McCarthy said it from Day 1 going into training camp, that basically 2011, 2010 – those were two different teams,” Burnett said. “Those teams had their own identity. (And in) 2012, you have a chance to build your own identity. Throughout the course of the season, you are going to face different adverse situations and it’s all about building your own team identity. And that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.