Packers enjoy clean bill of health for playoffs
GREEN BAY, Wis. — When the Packers last played at Lambeau Field, less than two weeks ago, it was hardly a complete group. Even though Green Bay beat the Detroit Lions in the regular-season finale, the Packers did so without most of their star players.
That was one of the greatest benefits to coach Mike McCarthy late in this season. Staying undefeated until Week 15 and winning the division with more than a month remaining allowed McCarthy to rest most of his slightly-injured key players. Plus, McCarthy kept quarterback Aaron Rodgers off the field to avoid an injury. And yet, Green Bay still defeated the Lions.
Linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson — two of the Packers best defensive players — were allowed an extra week to rest and heal. Wide receiver Greg Jennings, who had torn his MCL three weeks earlier, said he could have returned and played but was given the day off to further recuperate. Running back James Starks was out, as was return specialist and wide receiver Randall Cobb.
Now, thanks to that distinct advantage, the Packers are a healthy team heading into their playoff game against the New York Giants. Not a single active player has been unable to participate in practice this week, with players like Woodson and Matthews not even listed on the injury report at all.
"Just to have everybody back is a good thing," Starks said. "We should be healthy now. Everybody's rolling in practice and everything's clicking. Everybody's focused. Everybody's back. We're ready to roll."
The Packers are such an injury-free group that McCarthy is going to have to put healthy players on the inactive list before Sunday's game.
"This is the situation you're in when you are healthy," McCarthy said Thursday. "It's definitely going to be tough when we have the game-management (meetings) Saturday and have to let the players know Sunday. There's going to be some tough decisions."
McCarthy didn't have the luxury a year ago to be able to pick and choose. Last season, the Packers needed to win their final two games to make the playoffs, and McCarthy was far from having his full complement of players.
Before entering the postseason a year ago as the NFC's sixth-seeded team, Green Bay had 15 players on injured reserve. Starters such as linebacker Nick Barnett (now with the Buffalo Bills), tight end Jermichael Finleyand running back Ryan Grant were just three names on a list that was adding a new name at a clip of once a week.
"We've got a couple guys who were on IR last year that's hungry," Finley said. "It was tough on me."
This season, only four players from the Packers' active roster landed on injured reserve. Two of those four — rookie offensive tackle Derek Sherrod and rookie running back Alex Green — were not part of McCarthy's regular rotation.
"We've been fortunate this year so far with injuries," Cobb said. "We're pretty healthy going into the playoffs, and that's huge for us. I think that puts us a little more ahead of a lot of teams because a lot of teams have been battling a lot of problems."
As the injuries continued piling up last season, players within the locker room knew that the string of misfortune couldn't continue into the next year.
"The year we had last year doesn't really occur to most teams," nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "You have injuries here and there, but that's not the norm, so why would I expect that (to happen again)?"
There are potential setbacks to McCarthy playing it cautious late this season by resting many key players. A big reason for the Packers' 2011 playoff success and winning three consecutive road games plus the Super Bowl was the momentum they built up late in the regular season in must-win situations.
This year, it's their opponents from New York who have that momentum. The Giants had to win their final two regular season games to qualify for the postseason — just as Green Bay did a year ago — and then beat the Falcons last weekend while the Packers sat at home watching.
Rodgers hasn't played in a game since Christmas night, so he will be facing an opposing defense for the first time in three weeks. Jennings, the Rodgers' top target early in the season, hasn't played since Dec. 11.
However, that is not much different than the span of time that elapses between a team's third preseason game and its first regular season game. Plus, with this past offseason being much shorter than usual due to the lockout, Rodgers spoke frequently about how he believed it wouldn't affect his ability to play well early in the regular season just because he hadn't spent the normal amount of time with his receivers.
As it turned out, Rodgers was right, because in the Packers' first regular season game against the Saints, he threw for 312 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on 27 of 35 passing.
"We're sick of seeing the same faces at practice," wide receiver James Jones said. "It's starting to feel like training camp a little bit. We're ready to go."