Packers go from mini-crisis to playoff berth

McCarthy congratulates Rodgers after a first-quarter score on Sunday

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When Mike McCarthy signed on to coach the Green Bay Packers four years ago, he knew the job came with some unique challenges: Honoring the legacy of the great Vince Lombardi; co-existing with the strong-willed sensibilities of a living legend, Brett Favre(notes); serving as a caretaker for the hopes and dreams of a fan base that reveres its local pro team with an unrivaled sappiness.

Oh, and most daunting of all: Enduring late-December Gatorade baths at Lambeau Field.

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring it on!

It was 18 degrees at the start of Sunday's game between the Packers and the Seattle Seahawks, and when McCarthy got doused by Green Bay players Ryan Grant(notes) and Johnny Jolly(notes) near the end of a 48-10, playoff-clinching victory, he felt like a human popsicle. The sticky sports drink streamed under his shirt and clung to his body hair, adding new meaning to the term "Frozen Tundra."

"Yeah, he was cold," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) said. "But I bet it felt good."

It's a feeling McCarthy probably wasn't envisioning back in November, when his team suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that seemed to expose the Packers as frauds. Now here they are as an NFC wild-card team, having completed an impressive comeback from a midseason crisis with serious crash-and-burn possibilities. With six victories in its past seven games, Green Bay (10-5) heads into the postseason as one of the hottest teams in either conference.

As a result, on Sunday, McCarthy was the world's coldest coach. He was still shivering when I talked to him 25 minutes after the game, but when the conversation turned to his quarterback's growth, I could feel the warmth in the coach's voice.

"Aaron's a man's man," McCarthy said of Rodgers, a.k.a. The Man Who Followed Favre. "He's such a good person. He's got a good heart. How can you be around someone like that and not like the guy?

"Professionally, he's having success, and he's earned it. The guy deserves it, because he's worked his ass off. He's a better quarterback than he was a year ago, and he's more confident in his own skills. And he's incredibly tough. Because, let's face it, he hasn't had an easy transition."

If any coach understands his quarterback's harrowing quest to win over a skeptical fan base, it's McCarthy. Since that day in March of 2008 when Favre announced his short-lived retirement and McCarthy made the psychic commitment to Rodgers as his successor, the two men have been linked like few others in their respective positions.

They've gone through their share of low moments together, including last year's surreal training camp saga, when Favre created a spectacle by showing up and asking for his job back; Rodgers was taunted at Packers practices; and McCarthy sided with the former backup, hastening the trade of Favre to the Jets.

Last Nov. 1 when Favre, now with the rival Minnesota Vikings, returned to Lambeau and stuck it to the Packers for the second time in four weeks, both the coach and quarterback had their leadership skills questioned. And when the Pack did the unthinkable the following Sunday, losing to the previously winless Bucs to drop to 4-4, it was easy to envision a second-half slide that called McCarthy's job security into question.

"After that Minnesota game, I remember talking to the staff about the challenge we faced," McCarthy recalled. "We told the players, 'We don't want to lose two [games] because of one.' We said, 'This is a trap game.' They were coming off a bye week and we were down. So we knew what awaited us, and we didn't handle it."

Following the face-plant in Tampa, McCarthy said, "It would've been very easy to overreact as a football team. But we didn't. Part of it is our team being young, too. We're learning. We're getting there."

McCarthy is in a good place heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against the Cardinals in Arizona. The Packers don't need to stress out about the outcome – they'll enter the playoffs as the NFC's fifth or sixth seed and will face either the Cardinals (again) or the NFC East champion (Philadelphia Eagles or Dallas Cowboys) in the first round. There's also a scenario in which Green Bay could play the Vikings, though it's more likely that a potential third shot at Favre would come in the divisional round.

"I don't care who we play," linebacker Nick Barnett(notes) said Sunday. "As long as we keep playing. I think our best football is yet to come."

That statement may not apply to the Vikings, who've lost two of their past three heading into Monday night's game against the Chicago Bears and are trying to shake off a public spat between Favre and Minnesota coach Brad Childress. McCarthy knows that's none of his business, but don't think the coach isn't privately chuckling at Coach Chilly's seeming inability to control his future Hall of Fame passer and the frustration provoked by Favre's penchant for publicly airing his grievances.

As impressive as Favre's revival has been in '09, and as integral as he has been to the Vikings' success, it's becoming harder and harder for critics to charge that McCarthy and his boss, Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson, were wrong to roll with Rodgers.

And if the Packers end up going further in the postseason than the Vikes? Case closed.

It might not happen, but it's not a remote possibility, either. As we've seen in recent years, winning championships increasingly has less to do with where a team is seeded and is more a function of getting hot in January. For the Packers, Cincinnati Bengals (who clinched the AFC North with a 17-10 victory over the Chiefs), New England Patriots (AFC East champs after a 35-7 thrashing of the Jaguars) and Cowboys (playoff-bound after a 17-0 shutout of the Redskins), Sunday provided hope that a stirring playoff run is feasible.

Then there are teams like the New York Giants, Jacksonville Jags and Denver Broncos who suffered disappointing defeats that, whether or not it's justified, may leave their respective powers that be questioning the direction of their franchises.

McCarthy doesn't have such problems. For the second time in three years, he has Titletown abuzz with playoff fever, making the 6-10 comedown of '08 look like the aberration. This time, he has guided Green Bay to the postseason without Favre, and he has done it by going with his gut.

“I don't care who we play. As long as we keep playing. I think our best football is yet to come.”

– Packers linebacker Nick Barnett

One example came last week, when McCarthy reacted to the end of the team's five-game winning streak – a 37-36 defeat to the Steelers on a last-second Ben Roethlisberger(notes) touchdown pass – by giving the team an extra day off. After accelerating the preparation schedule for the Seahawks and asking his players to come in for individual work on Tuesday, their normal off day, McCarthy gave them the news that they'd be home for Christmas.

"We shut it down on Friday – for everyone in the building," McCarthy said. "I'd never done that in four years, but I had faith in our commitment. They knew we let one get away in Pittsburgh, and they responded. We started talking about Seattle Sunday in the [Heinz Field] locker room and started film study on Monday. The whole team came in Tuesday for individual time. And on Wednesday and Thursday – man, did they practice well."

McCarthy put the team in pads on Thursday, and toward the end of the workout he exclaimed, "Hell, if you practice like this every Thursday, we might get every Friday off!"

On Sunday, the Packers were on from the get-go, with Rodgers (12-of-23, 237 yards, one TD) setting an early tone and becoming the first player in NFL history to exceed 4,000 passing yards in his first two seasons as a starter. The Carolina Panthers' 41-9 thrashing of the Giants allowed the Pack to clinch, and after hoisting the Gatorade bucket and sneaking up behind their coach, Grant (16 carries, 97 yards, two TDs) and Jolly were as on target as McCarthy's quarterback.

"They put it right down my neck," McCarthy said. "Man, was it cold – I'm still cold from it. Your initial reaction is you want to get mad, but then you realize, I'm supposed to enjoy this. It was just an awesome scene. There's nothing like Lambeau Field. It's a great day for Green Bay."

On this day, the chilled coach surely wouldn't have traded places with Coach Chilly – or with anyone.

Said McCarthy: "It's nice to be where we are."

I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …

I know it looks like the Bengals (10-5) are staggering to the finish – they're emotionally spent in the wake of wideout Chris Henry’s death, and on Sunday they had a tough time subduing the Chiefs (3-12) before pulling out a 17-10 victory to clinch the AFC North, ending a two-game losing streak. They lost another key player, rookie linebacker Ray Maualuga, who went out with a broken ankle. Yet I still regard Cincinnati as a legitimate contender: The Bengals have a quarterback, Carson Palmer(notes), who’s capable of elevating his game to spectacular levels; they can pound the ball on the ground with Cedric Benson(notes) (29 carries, 133 yards); and, most important, their defense is no joke. After Cincy finally pulled ahead on Sunday when Palmer hit Chad Ochocinco(notes) with a 6-yard touchdown pass with 2:03 remaining, the Bengals’ defense, as it has all season, showed its mettle. “We had to make a stand,” defensive tackle Tank Johnson(notes) said Sunday afternoon. “We knew we couldn’t lose this game, and we loved that it was on us. We have the best corner tandem in the league, and you saw that again [Sunday].” Even cooler for Cincinnati was the fact that Leon Hall(notes) was the cornerback who clinched the game, making a diving interception of Matt Cassel’s(notes) pass for wideout Chris Chambers(notes) at the Bengals’ 19-yard-line with 1:06 to go. Hall had a rough game in the previous week’s defeat to the Chargers – no shame in that, given that San Diego (12-3) is now officially the NFL’s hottest team heading into January – and this was a nice bounce-back, as well as a fitting metaphor for his team’s response to last season’s 4-11-1 nightmare. “With us, it’s not really about X's and O's,” Johnson said. “It’s an attitude. When you have a bunch of guys who buy in and play together, anything can happen. [Sunday] was a grind, but we made it through.” Based on my exchange of text messages with coach Marvin Lewis, I expect Cincy to play to win against the New York Jets at Giants Stadium next Sunday night, which is good news for the AFC’s other wild-card contenders.

Of the five AFC playoff contenders that finished the weekend with 8-7 records, three stepped up with huge victories on Sunday: The Jets, who ended the Colts’ shot at the league’s second-ever 16-0 regular season (and second in three years); the Houston Texans, who jumped all over the Dolphins to win their third consecutive game; and the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who even after Sunday’s 23-20 triumph over the Baltimore Ravens are hanging by a thread. The Dolphins can officially end Pittsburgh’s shot at mounting a title defense on Sunday in the stadium where Super Bowl XLIV will be played, and wideout Santonio Holmes(notes), the reigning Super Bowl MVP, figures a whole lot of potential postseason competitors will be rooting for Miami. “I’m pretty sure every team that plays us wants to kick us out,” he said Sunday. “They’ve seen us struggle, but they know what we’re capable of if we get in – and I don’t think they want to see that happen.” Holmes did his part on Sunday, catching five passes for 86 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown reception late in the first half. Pittsburgh’s most impressive performer, however, was outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley(notes): The third-year player had a team-best seven unassisted tackles and ended Baltimore’s final drive with consecutive sacks of Joe Flacco(notes) in Steelers territory, the second one forcing a fourth-down fumble with 2:27 remaining. Woodley’s season sack total is 11½; 9½ have come in the last seven games. “That dude is definitely coming into his own,” Holmes said of Woodley. “Coach [Mike Tomlin] has been down his back a lot lately, letting him know he needs to make a play – that’s probably why he’s been playing as well as he’s been playing. That’s Coach Tomlin. He just challenges everybody.” And that’s yet another reason I’m an unabashed Tomlin fan.

Because the Browns and Bucs started out so miserably, coaches Eric Mangini and Raheem Morris are in danger of being fired after a single season with their respective teams. Yet each man, to his credit, has managed to keep his players from quitting: Mangini’s Browns (4-11) won their third consecutive game on Sunday, defeating the Oakland Raiders by a 23-9 score, while Morris’ Bucs (3-12) made it two in a row with a stunning, 20-17 overtime triumph over the Saints (13-2) at the Superdome. That Tampa Bay fought back from a 17-0 deficit to a team stinging from its first defeat of the season the previous Saturday – and looking to sew up the NFC’s No. 1 overall seed – makes the Bucs’ victory even more shocking. I asked veteran cornerback Ronde Barber(notes) on Sunday night to explain what the hell is going on in Tampa, and he attributed much of it to the players’ affection for Morris. “We’re just finding ourselves!” he wrote via text message. “One thing you cannot accuse us of is not playing hard. [A lot of teams quit, but] not us. We love our guy too much.” Trailing 17-3 at halftime, Morris, who took charge of the team’s defense after firing coordinator Jim Bates (in the wake of a 38-7 defeat to the Saints) five weeks ago, came up with some strategic wrinkles to help the cause. “Great adjustments,” Barber said. “A couple of defenses that we never even practiced, and guys were just buying in. Postgame, in our locker room, you’d have thought we won the Super Bowl.” As for the notion that Morris could be gone after Sunday’s regular season finale against the Falcons, Barber said, “Don’t buy into that [expletive]!” I still have my doubts – the Glazers have reacted aggressively in the past in the wake of disappointing outcomes, and nfl.com reported Sunday that team officials have reached out to Bill Cowher about possibly taking over in 2010. As for Mangini, the impending presence of newly hired football czar Mike Holmgren makes him a long shot to return. Then again, given some of the names I’m hearing from sources as possible replacements – yo, Cleveland, are you ready for Marty Mornhinweg, The Sequel? – Browns fans might prefer the status quo.

… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT

The last vestiges of the Giants’ post-Super Bowl XLII swagger officially disappeared Sunday afternoon at soon-to-be-obsolete Giants Stadium, and the end came in spectacular fashion. The Panthers, playing for nothing but pride, scored on seven of their first eight possessions and rolled to a 41-9 victory. The Giants (8-7) had a touchdown called back on their opening drive because of a holding penalty on fullback Madison Hedgecock(notes) and lost the ball when wideout Mario Manningham(notes) fumbled at the Carolina 17. How could a team coming off a confidence-building, 45-12 victory over the Redskins and playing for its postseason survival get so thoroughly dominated by the Panthers (7-8), who are finishing up a disappointing season that may result in coach John Fox getting fired? “I’m at a loss for words,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said during his postgame news conference, “just as I’m sure you are.” Actually, I’m pretty certain my friends in the New York media will have plenty to say about this. When things go badly in the Big Apple, they usually do so conspicuously, and I expect defensive end Osi Umenyiora’s(notes) postgame insinuation that he’ll be gone after the season to be the start of a trend. “What did I play, five snaps [Sunday]?” Umenyiora asked in an interview session with reporters after the game. “I don’t know, I don’t know what happened. I thought I was the problem. It’s an unbelievable situation, man. Last game at Giants Stadium, probably as a Giant, just the way everything has unfolded has been unbelievable.”

A year ago, Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington(notes) got the greatest Christmas gift imaginable – a chance to go back to New Jersey and propel his team to the playoffs by vanquishing the franchise that had given up on him. Broncos safety Brian Dawkins’(notes) didn’t have quite the same opportunity upon his return to Philly on Sunday – the Eagles had already clinched a playoff spot – but you can bet he was even more hyped than Pennington to do something special against his former team. It didn’t happen: Denver (8-7) lost for the seventh time in nine games, falling 30-27 on David Akers’(notes) 28-yard field goal with four seconds remaining. Dawkins, who has remained close with many of his ex-Eagles teammates, had a team-high eight tackles but failed to make the type of transcendent play that can change a game. “I had an opportunity to share some things with him afterwards,” Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown(notes) told me later. “He had some tears; his eyes were red. I think it was less about him losing and more about the emotion of him coming back to a place that, let’s face it, he helped build. When a guy like that comes back, you play hard for him – to uphold the tradition he helped build. Let me tell you something, though: What he brought to that team, you cannot measure. From day one I could tell how much of an effect he had in Denver. What he brings to a team in a huddle, in a locker room, off the field, you just can’t even imagine.” Now all Dawkins can do is try to help the Broncos defeat the Chiefs at Invesco Field next Sunday and hope they get some help: There are various scenarios that would get Denver into the playoffs with a victory, the simplest of which includes losses by the Jets or Ravens (but not both) combined with a defeat by the Texans or Steelers.

Speaking of teams with seasons on the line who came out like they were playing a preseason game in August, how about those Floridian frauds, the Dolphins and Jaguars? Miami (7-8) allowed the Texans to score on their first five possessions and fell behind 27-0 before rallying – too little, too late. Jacksonville (7-8), coming off a narrow defeat to the Colts and with 10 days to prepare, got down 28-zip to the Patriots before halftime and 35-0 early in the fourth quarter before scoring a gratuitous touchdown. When the Bucs are the only team in the Sunshine State that shows up after Christmas, that’s pretty scary. Then again, it was an emotionally jarring weekend for Florida’s football landscape. Maybe the Dolphins and Jags were rattled by a certain collegiate coach’s soul-searching struggle for personal and professional fulfillment.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. How hard it is to be Urban Meyer – and how noble he is for reconsidering his decision to resign, thus sparing the Florida football program the specter of his permanent absence.

2. That Colts coach Jim Caldwell (and, I suspect, team president Bill Polian) abruptly decided to pull back from Indy’s run at an undefeated regular season in the third quarter of Sunday’s game against the Jets, after having gone all out to win a similarly meaningless game against the Jaguars 10 days earlier. Seriously, what’s up with that? Do Polian and Caldwell like Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum and coach Rex Ryan more than they do Jags GM Gene Smith and coach Jack Del Rio? As I recently wrote, once a team clinches home-field advantage throughout the playoffs its coach owes no one an explanation about how he handles the regular season games that follow. Thus I have no problem with the Colts’ braintrust deciding that resting Peyton Manning(notes) and other starters is more important than maintaining rhythm for the playoffs, even at the expense of a possible undefeated season. What I want to know is, what changed between the Jacksonville game and Sunday’s battle with the Jets? Each opponent was in playoff contention at the time, and both games were tight while Indy had its front-line players on the field. The Colts had a five-point lead Sunday when Caldwell sent rookie Curtis Painter(notes) into the game for Manning in the middle of the third quarter, and from that point forward it was like watching a hot-air balloon lose pressure and careen to the ground. The Jets jumped all over Painter, forcing a fumble to score the go-ahead touchdown and intercepting him with 4:46 remaining to clinch the 29-15 victory. The timing of Caldwell’s switch bothered me, partly because it seemed to bother his players so perceptibly. If he had started the game with some first-stringers on the bench, or at least sent out Painter and the second-teamers for the start of the second half, the transition wouldn’t have seemed so choppy. But that’s the way they wanted to play it, I guess, and it really doesn’t matter what any of us think. Either Indy will flame out in the playoffs, and Polian and Caldwell will be second-guessed for months, if not years, or the Colts will reach the Super Bowl, and this will become a non-issue. As veteran linebacker Gary Brackett(notes) told me Sunday night, “It was a coach’s decision. We’ll live with it. Guys were upset, but there’s more than one way to get it done. We’ll see in the second week of February how it all came out. Trust me, we would rather be 3-0 in the playoffs than 16-0 in the regular season.”

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

Derrick Mason(notes), Derrick Mason, Derrick Mason – how could you drop that pass in the end zone? On the first play of the fourth quarter of a 20-20 game against the rival Steelers with major playoff implications, the Ravens’ veteran receiver broke free down the right sideline and had two steps on everyone. He reached up to catch the softest, most perfect touch pass from Joe Flacco – and it doinked off his facemask. Derrick!!!!! Three penalties (two accepted) and an incomplete pass later, the Ravens punted. The Steelers ended up winning, 23-20, to keep their playoff hopes alive. Baltimore, by the grace of the football gods, remained in control of its own playoff fate – the Ravens would earn a wild-card berth with a road victory over the Raiders next Sunday. So that means Mason has a chance to atone for one of the most brutal drops of this or any season, and I really hope he does. I know the guy didn’t do it on purpose, but in a sport in which kickers lose their jobs for missing chip-shot field goals, it’s not a stretch to say that such a lapse of concentration is unacceptable. This is a man who, in the same game, became the 22nd NFL receiver to reach the 11,000-yard milestone. His decision to come out of “retirement” three weeks after announcing he was done last summer paid off for Baltimore in a big way; he leads the Ravens with 1,005 receiving yards and is the team’s go-to wideout. So, in other words, he’s the last guy who should be dropping the easiest pass ever in that context. Derrick!!!!!

TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

“NOOOOO … Don’t do it!”
– Text Thursday from Kurt Warner(notes), after learning that I’d finally signed off on a getting a dog, as he had several months earlier, breaking our pact. My kids (well, two of the three) were thrilled when they found out on Christmas morning that a puppy will be arriving soon; what they didn’t learn – and what Warner had conveniently neglected to tell me – is that he and his wife, Brenda, had already given away their Shih Tzu because her presence proved to be too disruptive. Thanks buddy.

“Question: The colts were by no means in a comfortable winning position in the 3rd quarter when they took out their key starters … does this not mean that losing the game was discussed & accepted before the game started, or what’s known as ‘throwing the game?’ … if I’m a guy who bet big $ that the colts would beat the jets, I would sue them for conspiracy & the team should be brought up on charges … at least Pete Rose never threw a game!”
– Texts Sunday evening from former NFL tackle Kyle Turley(notes), now a Nashville-based musician

“Yea boy … goose egg baby!”
– Text Sunday night from Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking(notes) after shutting out the Redskins