GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — While B.J. Raji wasn’t one of the Green Bay Packers players who showed up for a preseason kickoff luncheon wearing a cowboy hat, he liked his teammates’ subtle show of swagger.
Going into the season, most people took the Packers’ Old West costume caper as a playful-but-purposeful message that they intended to finish their season in cowboy country, the Feb. 6 Super Bowl at Cowboys Stadium — and weren’t afraid to say so.
And with the Packers now preparing to face the Pittsburgh Steelers after beating Chicago in the NFC championship game Sunday, Raji says the defensive linemen might be planning a motivational gimmick of their own.
“I think the D-line has something up our sleeve for this trip,” Raji said Monday, still relishing his interception return for a touchdown against the Bears.
To be sure, Mike McCarthy’s Packers will never be mistaken for Rex Ryan’s mouthy New York Jets.
But the Packers did spend training camp openly embracing their role as Super Bowl favorites, displays of confidence that quickly were forgotten once injuries piled up and the Packers had to scramble just to make the playoffs.
Had the Packers lost either of their final two regular season games, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs — so in their minds, they’ve won five straight playoff games.
With the Super Bowl now a reality, the Packers’ confidence seems just as high as it was back in September.
“We got to the point where they told us we had to win the last two games to get in, and everybody put it on their shoulders,” wide receiver Donald Driver said. “Everybody had to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘You have to do your job better if you want to get here.’ Once we got in, we told everybody, ‘You don’t want to see us.’”
McCarthy said the Packers knew they were a good team coming out of training camp, and credited the players for not losing confidence once the injuries hit.
“Our particular path this year, in hindsight, has made us a stronger football team,” McCarthy said. “It’s shaped us in a different way. We’ve had an opportunity to play, really, five playoff games going into this Super Bowl so I think that really helps us. We feel like we’re a razor-sharp team as far as the level of play we’re bringing to the table here in the past month.”
McCarthy hasn’t been particularly prone to making bold statements during his time as the Packers’ coach, but even he embraced his team’s Super Bowl expectations going into the season.
Then the injuries hit. The Packers lost running back Ryan Grant to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1, and it just got worse from there.
“Once that started happening throughout the year, we knew we still had a chance to get in, and that was the crazy part,” Driver said. “You go through the year, you’re like, ‘OK, we lose this game, we win this game, then you start bouncing back and realizing that you can do it.’”
The Packers wouldn’t be getting ready for the Super Bowl without players who took on bigger roles, including inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, safety Charlie Peprah, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, running back James Starks and outside linebacker Erik Walden.
“With the injuries we had early in the season, maybe some people wrote us off,” left tackle Chad Clifton said. “But again, I think that’s just a credit to the players we have in the locker room. Guys stepped up and played and played well and put us in position to get us where we’re at today.”
Safety Nick Collins said the Packers’ preseason confidence carried over from their previous season, which ended with a disappointing playoff loss at Arizona.
“The way we finished the season last year, we felt like we had an opportunity last year to go all the way and fell a little short,” Collins said. “We just came in with the mindset that we can go all the way and everybody buying in. It’s been paying off this year.”
Now the Packers are going to the Super Bowl, a reality Driver said hasn’t set in yet.
“That’s when you start really feeling it once you start getting down to Dallas and start seeing all the different activities and things going on,” Driver said. “That’s when it will really hit you. Then the family is all excited. I know that, but it hasn’t really hit me yet.”