Packers believe best football still ahead

CHICAGO — The past two months haven’t been spectacular for Green Bay, but after a 2-3 start to the regular season, the 10-4 Packers are now the NFC North champions following their road win Sunday afternoon over the Bears.

“I’m thrilled to win a division championship,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We know we’re now in the tournament, the playoffs, and now we fight for the seed.”

Green Bay has won eight of its last nine games, passing up Chicago — which was once 7-1 — for the division lead along the way.

“I’m not a drama queen,” McCarthy said. “I’m not trying to diminish anything here, but we’re just getting started. We feel that way as a football team. I’m not trying to be arrogant. We feel we have a lot better football in front of us.”

Unlike last year, when the Packers went 15-1 and won eight of those games by double digits, Green Bay hasn’t played at that type of dominant level most of this season. That was true again Sunday in Chicago, as a fumble, a turnover on a botched trick play on special teams and a 53-yard pass interference call all kept the Bears in the game.

“It’s been a grind though this season, more than last year, and even 2010, this has been a grind,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the game. “We’ve dealt with a lot of adversity, we’ve had some ups and downs, we’ve had a lot of guys hurt. To get a win like this means a lot to our organization, our fans, guys in the locker room.”

Given the critical errors in other facets of the Packers’ win, Rodgers needed an MVP-like performance in order to help his team clinch the division. With the help of wide receiver James Jones, who caught all three of Rodgers’ touchdown passes, the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player completed 23 of 36 passes for 291 yards and did not throw an interception.

“I thought Aaron played extremely well, obviously against a tough defense down here,” McCarthy said.

In recent weeks, Rodgers hasn’t allowed himself to use “the p-word,” instead waiting until it was official to talk about the playoffs. Considering the way Green Bay’s season began, a stretch that included a beatdown at home in Week 1 from the San Francisco 49ers, the infamous ‘Inaccurate Reception’ call by the replacement referees in Seattle going against them in Week 3 and a blown 18-point halftime lead in Indianapolis, Rodgers was smart to stall on discussing any potential game beyond December.

No players inside the Packers’ locker room seemed overly worried about their slow start this year, but it was certainly a drastic change for a team that had little opposition last season — until the playoffs, of course.

But it’s one thing for players to claim the sky isn’t falling and another to be justifiably patient during an unexpected skid early in the season. However, there was a defining moment in Green Bay’s season that happened the week after it let the Colts come back from a 21-3 deficit.

“Houston was a wake-up for us,” Rodgers said.

In Week 6, the Packers traveled to face the undefeated Texans, with a loss sending Green Bay two games below .500 for the first time since November 2008. But the Packers didn’t lose. No, they pummeled Houston for a 42-24 victory that wasn’t even as close as that final score.

“I think what Houston did for us was just remind us that we were a team that had some special players,” Rodgers said. “As an older player on this team and someone who’s been around through a lot of different types of teams, I think you just try and remind the guys how special this opportunity is. You don’t want to let it slip away.

“I think that’s the thing we learned from last year was, it’s so exciting and thrilling to get to the Super Bowl, then you go on a run and go 15-1 and you kind of forget how difficult it was at times. We’re all reminded of how special those moments are, getting to the championship game and winning big-time games, and I think this team has dealt with a lot more adversity and is a tight-knit group that knows how to win.”

The 2012 Packers are a good team. They may not be as good as the 2011 version, but that often-unstoppable group was sent home early in the postseason by the eventual-champion New York Giants. In 2012, Green Bay has only looked great once (the win in Houston), but after locking up the NFC North, the Packers can now focus on the bigger prize.

“We know this was not our ultimate goal,” Jones said of winning the division. “The ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl, so we have a lot of work to do.”

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