The Green Bay Packers are playing in the NFC Championship Game, a place no one expected them to be.
Last year at this time, the Green Bay Packers had just hired an unproven offensive coordinator from the Tennesee Titans to become the 15th head coach in the history of the franchise.
They were coming off of back-to-back seasons of missing the playoffs with a future Hall-of-Fame quarterback who was coming off one of the worst statistical seasons of his career that left many wondering if he still had “it” anymore.
Stars Randall Cobb and Clay Matthews were departing to become free agents and they had the 12th overall draft pick, a spot higher than any draft since they selected B.J. Raji with the ninth pick in 2009. Things weren’t looking the best in Green Bay. The future was unknown and there were a lot of questions. Are the Packers rebuilding? Is their “Super Bowl window” with Aaron Rodgers almost closed?
General Manager Brian Gutekunst answered those questions right away in March when he spent a combined $155 million on three defensive players, linebackers Za’Darius Smith ($66 million) and Preston Smith ($52 million) and safety Adrian Amos ($37 million).
Many thought the Packers overpaid for their pass-rushers, especially the relatively unproven Za’Darius Smith, who the Packers had been trying to acquire unsuccessfully for a while. Meanwhile, Bears fans liked to point out that Adrian Amos really wasn’t that good and they got the better player when they signed Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Then they drafted Rahsan Gary, a pick which left a lot of Packers’ fans scratching their heads. Then they traded back into the first round for Darnell Savage Jr., a pick many applauded. They also drafted interior lineman Elgton Jenkins, which didn’t necessarily generate a whole lot of buzz.
Entering training camp, another hot topic popped up in Green Bay. After the fallout of the Rodgers/McCarthy “rift”, the relationship between Rodgers and Matt LaFleur was under a microscope. ProFootballTalk made a living analyzing any and every little thing that could have possibly been construed as the tension between the veteran quarterback and the rookie coach.
With everything new and all of the change, the expectations for this 2019 Packers team were not very high. They were in a division with the Chicago Bears, the next up-and-coming team that was expected to contend for a championship, and the Minnesota Vikings, who were a game away from the Super Bowl just two years ago. Things were going to be tough for this young Packers squad and many thought they’d be lucky to go about 8-8 or 9-7.
I’ll admit, I was not overly optimistic either. I thought if they could sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card it would be a big success for this team, especially after watching them the past two seasons.
Well, the Packers came out with two straight wins over both the Bears and Vikings. The defense started out hot while the offense was still getting going. The Smiths were unblockable and Amos was solid and provided a cherry on top in the victory against the Bears in Week 1 on national television when he picked off his former quarterback in the end zone to effectively end the game.
Things continued to trend upwards, even with a few road bumps on the way. An untimely Davante Adams injury during the Eagles game and a couple of trips out west provided the only three losses this team suffered all year. They went 7-1 at home and 6-0 in the division, winning the NFC North.
En route to their division title, they still were not getting respect. They had just two players make the Pro Bowl — offensive tackle David Bakhtiari and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Za’Darius Smith, who had a career season, stacking up 13.5 sacks and was at the top of the league in pressures, was snubbed from not only the Pro Bowl but the All-Pro team too. In last Sunday’s game, after he sacked Russell Wilson, he let everyone know how he felt about it.
The rookies also played well this season. Both Savage and Jenkins have been big contributors and were named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team, while Gary, who is still pretty raw, started showing flashes throughout the season.
The Packers finished the season with a 13-3 record and a first-round bye. Even with a division title in the tough NFC North, a bye in the first round, many considered this team among the worst 13-3 teams ever.
More bulletin board material.
The Packers jumped out ahead in the divisional round and held off the late Russell Wilson attack to defeat the Seahawks and send the Pack back to the NFC Championship Game, where they would face the 49ers, a team that thoroughly outplayed them in Week 12 this season.
Going into the game this Sunday, no one is picking the Packers to win, and I’m sure they are hearing all the doubt and using it as motivation. They should have an “us against the world” mentality because really, it is. No one outside of Green Bay and their fans really believes they are going to win this game. They are 7.5-point underdogs and they have nothing to lose. All the pressure will be on the 49ers to win.
Whatever happens on Sunday, just remember: the Packers weren’t even supposed to be here, let alone make the playoffs or even have a winning record. If they win and go to the Super Bowl, it will add to an already amazing story.
If they lose, this season will still be a huge success. They are years ahead of where many NFL pundits thought they would be. Regardless of what happens, they are still a team that Packer fans can be proud of and appreciate.
Go Pack Go.