GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — The Green Bay Packers are in playoff mode, even after a loss on Sunday at Buffalo clouded their postseason prospects.
Breaking from the norm, coach Mike McCarthy had his players elect playoff captains Monday, six days ahead of a critical game at Tampa Bay. Usually, that voting isn't conducted until the Monday after the conclusion of the regular season.
"We're looking at this game as really the start of our playoff approach, playoff mindset," McCarthy said Wednesday. "This is a road game that we have to have. We clearly understand the importance of winning in December, but we feel like we need to take it up a notch as a football team to make sure that we improve not only as a team but, most importantly, in the win column. This is a playoff-type preparation. We discussed it in the team meeting."
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and wide receiver Jordy Nelson were selected on offense, linebacker Julius Peppers and safety Morgan Burnett on defense, and Randall Cobb and Jarrett Bush on special teams.
Of course, the Packers won't need playoff captains if they don't play better than they did in a 21-13 loss at Buffalo. If Green Bay wins at Tampa Bay and either Philadelphia loses to Washington or Dallas beats Indianapolis, the Packers will clinch a playoff berth. Beat Tampa Bay and then Detroit, which is tied with Green Bay for the NFC North lead, and the Packers will earn the division title and a coveted first-round playoff bye.
Offensively, it starts with Rodgers bouncing back after what statistically was the worst game of his career. The Packers, who entered last week with the most points scored and fewest giveaways in the league, managed only one touchdown while turning over the ball twice.
"I think it's a mindset of dealing with adversity in a positive way and pushing through it, and when the going gets tough, they say the tough get going," Rodgers said. "(Being) mentally tough, I think, is a trait that allows you to overcome some rough performances, and that's what I rely on after a poor performance is my mental preparation and my mental fortitude."
It's not only Rodgers who's looking to put last week's performance behind him. The Packers dropped six passes after entering the game with only 17 for the season, according to STATS. The receivers didn't do any more ball drills than usual, Nelson said, and the only recourse was to "move on" to this week's game.
"The focus level and guys working hard and trying to continue to improve (are the keys)," said Nelson, who dropped what might have been a 94-yard touchdown that could have changed the outcome against Buffalo. "Even though it's late in the year, you can't start settling for where you're at, and there's always areas to improve each and every week, whether it's individually or as an offense. I think we've got professional guys in here that take a lot of pride in our work, whether it's in practice or if it's in a game."
That pride has shown up this season. After the Packers' three losses, they've bounced back to win by an average of 23 points. With a healthy Rodgers, the Packers haven't dropped back-to-back games since October 2010. That starts with the leadership, McCarthy said, which is why he decided to elect playoff captains now rather than waiting a couple of weeks. He's looking toward his leaders to "take the responsibility" of pushing this team past last week and into the postseason.
"It's that time of the year. It's the playoff time of the year," said Peppers, a quiet veteran who was added during the offseason. "So yeah, if you want to say it's that time to turn it up, then you can say that. It's an honor to be voted by your teammates. Any time you're voted captain, you've got to accept that responsibility and step up and be a leader."
Added Nelson: "It's an honor. Probably one of the higher honors you can get is when guys on your team look at you in that way. But there's also a responsibility and pressure with it, so I take that very personal and look to be a leader for this team and hopefully guide us on a playoff run."