GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers are the first team in NFL history to win at least 13 regular-season games in three straight seasons, and if they don’t reach the Super Bowl, they would set another milestone.
And it’s not a good one.
There have been eight teams to win 39 games during a three-year span, and all of them reached at least one Super Bowl. The Packers are looking to follow suit.
Add that to the usual pressure that comes in the one-and-done playoffs -- plus the possibility that this could be Aaron Rodgers’ last season as their quarterback -- and the Packers have plenty of reasons to be tense heading into Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game against the 49ers at Lambeau Field (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox).
“I'm not gonna lie,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said of dealing with the intensity of the postseason, “it’s hard.”
But the tension and pressure that comes with the playoffs isn’t unexpected or unique to the Packers in this year or any other.
“I think it’s natural, I really do,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “I think you’ve really got to keep everything in perspective and really just focus on what you have right in front of you, whether it’s the meeting, whether it's the walk-through, whether it’s the practice, just making sure you’re dialed in, you’re locked in, you’re doing everything you can to stay in the moment.
“That’s as important as anything is staying in the moment, knowing and trusting what has gotten us to this point. At the end of the day it’s football, and yeah, obviously there’s a lot at stake. But that is life in this league, and so you’ve got to try and compartmentalize that as best you can and try to keep it as normal as possible.”
The divisional round hasn’t been the problem. Last year, the Packers eased by the Los Angeles Rams 32-18, and in the 2019 season Green Bay beat the Seattle Seahawks 28-23. The NFC Championship Games have been another story. Last year’s mistake-filled game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the blowout loss at the 49ers the year before still hang over this team.
Rodgers, who is on the verge of winning his second straight MVP, has as much to do with what happens to the Packers over the next month as anyone. His playoff record since the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV victory is 7-8. In those 15 games, he’s thrown 10 interceptions.
There have been five instances of a player winning the MVP in consecutive seasons, and only one -- Peyton Manning in 2013 and 2014 -- didn’t reach a Super Bowl in at least one of those seasons.
Throw in the uncertainty over Rodgers’ future -- whether he’ll be back in Green Bay next season, wants a trade or will retire -- and it would be understandable if this postseason had a do-or-die feel.
Rodgers, however, insisted this week that it does not.
“That seems a little morbid,” he said. “I think football mortality is something that we all think about, and we all think about how many opportunities we're gonna be afforded moving forward, and each one is special. Each season is different and unique in its own way, as has this one been. There's four teams left on the NFC side. We're one of them. We get to host playoff games. This is a special opportunity. We're not gonna make it bigger than it is.
“We've gotten this far being level-headed and even-keeled and not riding a roller-coaster of emotions, and we're gonna keep on doing the same thing. So if it was good enough to get us this far, it's good enough to get us past this point.”
It sounds like Rodgers has held true to that in the locker room and around teammates.
“He’s the same guy every day, fun-loving guy,” running back Aaron Jones said of Rodgers’ playoff approach. “I love being around him. But he lets you know, ‘Hey, this is playoff football, no need to change anything we’ve done, continue to do the same things but with just a little urgency.’”
Or there’s the way veteran receiver Randall Cobb looks at it. Cobb, who returned to the Packers in July in a trade that Rodgers requested upon a condition of his return, is well aware of “The Last Dance” feeling some have attached to this season.
“Some people can say that; for me, I don’t see it as pressure,” Cobb said. “We play a game, and I’m so thankful for this game and everything it’s given me. I’ve lost in these moments so many times. I’m not going to put that pressure on myself because I’ve done it before. I’m going to go out there and I’m going to play ball. I’m going to do what I know how to do.
“The pressure is … we don’t need to add any extra pressure; we’ve got enough pressure in our lives living enough. So I’m just going out there and playing ball.”
That’s better than not being in this position at all, which was the case for Cobb the last two seasons. After eight years in Green Bay, he played for the Cowboys in 2019 and the Texans in 2020. Neither made the playoffs. That made watching his former teammates in the NFC Championship Games two years in a row excruciating.
“I wish my wife was here to answer the question, because I remember the day of that game (vs. the 49ers), I couldn’t talk,” Cobb said. “I didn’t want to be around anybody. I was sitting in a room by myself; I wouldn’t even let her watch the game with me. I went into a room by myself and watched the game. It was a dark place. I was actually really worried about myself mentally because I just didn’t know.
“I really thought like, ‘Dang, I must really be the problem. It must’ve really been me.’ Again, that might be the pressure that I put on myself in those situations, in that scenario. Yeah for me to be on the team for eight years and they win the Super Bowl the year before … and then they are getting ready to go to the Super Bowl the year after I leave, that was heavy. That was heavy for me to deal with. But we’re here. We’re here now, and we’ve got an opportunity in front of us.”