GREEN BAY – Never mind that the No. 1 seed and first-round playoff bye didn’t amount a hill of beans for the Green Bay Packers last season. The suggestion that they’d be better off playing on the opening weekend of the NFC playoffs – as they did during their road to the Super Bowl XLV title two years ago – is just plain wrong, according to coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
While McCarthy might play things a little differently if he had a do-over – such as, not resting as many of his guys for the meaningless regular-season finale against Detroit, a game played two weeks before the NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants – the coach made it clear this week that the team’s goal is to earn one of the top two NFC seeds and get the opening weekend off.
“I really do feel the bye week last year and what happened in the Giants game was really overblown. But I understand that,” McCarthy said in advance of Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans at Lambeau Field. “I’ve looked at it extensively. The Giants beat us, but I looked at the way we practiced and all the things leading up to that game. I will do some things differently if I’m in that position, but … it’s important to have a healthy football team and if you have the opportunity to achieve a bye week, that’s what we’re working for.
“I want to make that clear right now. We’re going to play the whole way through and we’re hopeful to secure the No. 3 (seed) at minimum this week and hopefully be in position to move up to No. 2. We’re focused on winning games and improving as a football team, but we want the bye week. Make no bones about it.”
The possibility is certainly there. At 10-4, the Packers would earn a bye if they beat both the Titans and the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 30, and the San Francisco 49ers (10-3-1) lose either at Seattle this Sunday night or at home to Arizona the next week. In that scenario, the Packers would finish 12-4, and the 49ers would be, at best, 11-4-1. Atlanta (12-2) can clinch the No. 1 seed with a victory at Detroit on Saturday night or a victory at home against Tampa Bay on Dec. 30.
“It’s tough, it’s tough to do that,” Rodgers said of the way the 2010 team won three straight road games – at Philadelphia, at Atlanta and at Chicago – en route to winning the franchise’s 13th NFL championship in Dallas. With the No. 1 seed secured last season, Rodgers sat out the finale against the Lions, serving as the offensive play-caller for the first half while backup Matt Flynn threw six touchdown passes in the victory.
Rodgers said if he’d do anything differently, he “would probably play in the last game a little bit” instead of sitting out both the finale and a bye week. But that won’t be a problem this year, since the Packers will likely need to win the finale to get that bye.
“I just think it’s too hard to be on the sidelines for an entire game and to not practice for most of the week,” Rodgers said. “The rest was amazing, and I strongly disagree with anyone and would debate anyone and probably beat them about how important rest is at that point in the season. It’s important.”
That’s clearly the Packers’ thought process this year, amid another rash of injuries. Perhaps only wide receiver Greg Jennings, who missed eight of the team’s first 14 games with a lower abdominal muscle tear, would like to avoid a bye.
“Selfishly, I want to keep playing. But, I mean, obviously we’ve had a lot of injuries, so you want that rest,” Jennings said. “You want guys to have an opportunity to get back on their feet and heal up. But I think the more momentum you can go into the playoffs with and continue rolling with that instead of having a lull or a pause, I think the better off we’ll be.”
Last season, the only one of the top two seeds in each conference that failed to reach the conference championship game was – you guessed it – Green Bay. Although second-seeded San Francisco also lost at home to eventual the Super Bowl-champion Giants, both top-seeded New England and second-seeded Baltimore reached the AFC title game, with the Patriots holding serve.
In the last seven postseasons, beginning with the 2005 season, at least one of the four top seeds has lost its first playoff game post-bye, and No. 1 or 2 seeds have just a 15-13 record in the divisional playoff round.
In 2008, three of the four top seeds (Tennessee, Carolina and the Giants) all lost after byes, and in 2005, 2006, 207 and 2010, two of the No. 1 or 2 seeds fell. Like the Packers last year, the only high seed that failed to get to the conference championship in 2009 was 13-3 San Diego.
From 1990 through 2004, the No. 1 and 2 seeds were a whopping 49-11 in the divisional playoff round, meaning that more lower-seeded teams have upset No. 1 or 2 seeds in the last seven years (13) and than they did in the previous 15 years (11).
Nevertheless, the Packers believe their best path to New Orleans is to get a week off and have at least part of the road go through Green Bay. That would mean winning Sunday, getting some help, and then winning at the Metrodome as Vikings running back Adrian Peterson takes aim at the NFL single-season rushing record.
“It would have been different if we'd been 14-0. I think we probably would have played it through last year,” Rodgers said. “After we lost (to Kansas City), we had the No. 1 seed locked up (going into the finale) and we wanted to get healthy. I still think that was the right decision.
“This year, we have the opportunity to clinch no worse than the third seed with a win this week and then, depending on what happens in Seattle, maybe playing for the No. 2 seed next week against our rival (the Vikings). Also, (there’s) the possibility of knocking them out of the playoffs, which is definitely something to play for and hopefully keeping (Peterson) under 2,105 yards – if that's possible. I don't know if it is.
“There's a lot to play for, and I think we learned last year, you've got to be playing the right way at the end of the season. Hopefully we can keep the momentum going that we started and keep it rolling.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.