In the aftermath of the Green Bay Packers’ sobering 44-21 road loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game last January, one quote from Aaron Rodgers garnered all the attention.
“We’ve just got to make sure we’re going all-in every year to win,” the Packers quarterback said.
Most viewed that as a shot across the bow of general manager Ted Thompson, a sign that the franchise quarterback, who had just turned 33, thought it was time for Thompson to alter his rigid draft-and-develop approach while Rodgers was still at the peak of his powers.
Rodgers had another telling quote that day, however, one that got lost in the shuffle. Referring to a 4-6 start that prevented the Packers from even thinking about gaining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Rodgers said something had to change.
“I think if this has taught us anything, it’s how important that home-field advantage is,” he said. “Being able to sleep in your own bed and practice and not have to travel and then have the fan support, it makes a big difference. We’ve played in three of these (NFC title games) now, and all on the road. It’s just tough to win on the road.”
Rodgers makes a good point. For a team with a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player at quarterback, the Packers have underachieved in the playoffs — except, of course, for that glorious run to the 2010 NFL title.
A big reason they’ve underachieved is they’ve been forced to play way too many road playoff games. And the biggest reason they’ve been unable to secure home-field advantage deep into the playoffs is because they keep putting themselves behind the 8-ball early with slow starts under coach Mike McCarthy.
The good news is there are signs that this is the year the Packers might get out of the blocks quickly and not be forced to run uphill the rest of the season. But don’t we say that every year?
Another playoff bid this season would give the Packers nine in a row, which would tie the NFL record. However, in their eight straight playoff appearances, the Packers haven’t enjoyed the benefits of playing in Lambeau Field in January nearly as much as their regular-season success would suggest.
They’ve had 16 playoff games in those eight seasons but only five have been at Lambeau.
Five of their seven season-ending losses have come on the road, including the last three years. They have the NFL’s second-best regular-season record since 2009, but only twice — 2011 and 2014 — did they earn a coveted first-round bye. And, as Rodgers pointed out, they’ve played in three NFC title games, all on the road (though they did win at Chicago in 2010).
Clearly, the New England Patriots, who have won two Super Bowls and played in three since the Packers last appeared in one, have improved their chances by securing the first or second playoff seed six years in a row.
Accordingly, only two of their 17 playoff games in the last eight years have been true road games.
The Packers’ goal should be to do the same, starting against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday at home. For some reason, though, starting quickly is hard for them.
Only twice in the past eight seasons have the Packers played well right from the start — going 13-0 in 2011 and 6-0 in 2015. Otherwise, they’ve struggled out of the gate. In order, they went 4-4 in 2009, 3-3 in 2010, 2-3 in 2012, 1-2 in both 2013 and 2014 and 4-6 last season. They’ve been 4-4 or 5-3 at the mid-point six times in the eight seasons, which usually meant they had to go 6-2 or 7-1 after that to get in the mix for a favorable playoff seeding.
The Packers always right the ship in time to reach the playoffs, but, as we’ve seen, it usually puts them at a disadvantage in the postseason. They won their final six games last season and still had only one home playoff game to show for it.
Of course, there are no guarantees affixed to home-field advantage, something Packers’ fans know all too well after home playoff losses to the New York Giants in 2011 and San Francisco 49ers in 2013. Still, a fast start appears to be a possibility this season.
First, the Packers are healthy. When they convened for practice Monday, tackle Bryan Bulaga was the only starter not on the field and he has said he’ll be ready for the opener. Second, there have been no major changes on offense from the unit that tore up the league the second half of last season. There are no new roles for assistant coaches, no major scheme changes and, if anything, the skill-position talent has improved.
Finally, Thompson took Rodgers’ advice and added some veterans who won’t have a learning curve early in the season.
There are also red flags, however.
The Packers open the season with Seattle and Atlanta and play Dallas in the fifth game and Minnesota in the sixth, with the latter three games on the road. Along with the Packers, those four teams are the cream of the crop in the NFC.
There was also heavy roster upheaval in the final week of camp, which added veteran talent but is potentially disruptive.
The last 10 games on the schedule appear to be very manageable for the Packers.
If they can get there with a winning record, they should have a great chance at getting playoff opponents in Lambeau for a change.