GREEN BAY, Wis. — Go ahead, take shots at the Green Bay Packers and their barely-above .500 record. Question the defense, and make light of how they needed to scratch and claw to win three of their last four games.
All that matters to coach Mike McCarthy is that Green Bay won the NFC North and is in the NFL playoffs.
“I love our defense. I love our football team. Throw the stats out the window,” a rejuvenated McCarthy said Monday at Lambeau Field. “You can throw the bad ones at me and I’ll throw the good ones back at you.
“We’re a playoff football team. Our identity has changed. This team has embraced it, and we know it’s going to take the full game to get it done, and that’s the way we play.”
The Packers (8-7-1) have grown accustomed to nail-biters on their way to winning a third straight division crown.
The most important close call came Sunday at Chicago’s Soldier Field, when Aaron Rodgers found Randall Cobb for an unlikely 48-yard touchdown catch on fourth-and-8 with 38 seconds left to cap the comeback from an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter for a 33-28 win.
What’s more, it sent the Bears — Green Bay’s fiercest division rival — home for the winter.
The victory and touchdown reception that featured two key Packers who returned from injuries had sports talk radio shows buzzing throughout Wisconsin on Monday.
“Oh man, It’s a great a feeling,” running back Eddie Lacy said Sunday night about watching time expire on the clock. “We’re about to go to the (playoffs), and now we have to keep it going.”
But the Packers had only Sunday night to celebrate.
“I’m sure some guys went past midnight,” McCarthy said.
It was back to business on Monday in Titletown, and as if to emphasize the point, McCarthy sported a suit and tie when he spoke to reporters.
“It is playoff time, and we’re focused on the 49ers,” he said. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team will visit Lambeau Field on Sunday for an NFC wild-card game.
The 49ers beat the Packers 34-28 in San Francisco in Week 1, back in September. Last season, the 49ers eliminated Green Bay from the playoffs en route to the Super Bowl.
As much as McCarthy would like to disregard the statistics, on defense at least, the numbers don’t paint a pretty picture. Green Bay is 25th in the NFL in total defense, giving up 372 yards a game.
After a solid start to the season, the Packers have fallen to 25th against the run, allowing 125 yards per game.
It is unknown if pass-rushing linebacker Clay Matthews will return to action after breaking his right thumb for a second time this year. He won’t play on Sunday.
But the Packers do have Rodgers back after the 2011 NFL MVP missed nearly two months because of a fractured left collarbone. He is the ultimate game-changer, a franchise quarterback who can help mask other flaws on the team.
McCarthy said he can’t think of a better two-minute drill in his coaching career than the one the Packers executed Sunday night to help win the game.
“I think this is probably his finest hour as a Green Bay Packer,” McCarthy said of Rodgers.
The road back to the postseason has been strewn with obstacles. Besides Rodgers, Cobb and Matthews, injuries have also deprived Green Bay of tight end Jermichael Finley, defensive end Johnny Jolly and cornerback Casey Hayward. Projected left tackle Bryan Bulaga was lost in training camp.
But McCarthy believes a team identity has emerged late in games over the last month. The defense staved off the Bears’ last-ditch drive with an interception by cornerback Sam Shields.
Call ’em the “never-give-up” Packers.
“When you really have to earn it to get in,” McCarthy said, “yeah, it’s very rewarding.”