Adversity helped forge youngest Packers' playoff mindset

Win-or-go-home mentality galvanized Green Bay's 2016 rookie class


GREEN BAY — Blake Martinez could feel the butterflies gathering in his stomach in the days leading up to his first NFL playoff game.

It's not unusual. The Packers linebacker wasn't unlike any rookie needing to overcome a little nervous anxiety on the eve of his team's most important game of the season.

As the week progressed, however, a sense of calm washed over Martinez entering last Sunday's NFC Wild Card playoff against the New York Giants with the realization he'd been in this position before.

For six weeks to end the regular season, the Packers adopted a win-or-go-home mindset in order to keep their playoff hopes alive following a 4-6 start to the season.

Any slip-up along the way could've ended any hope of a postseason run. Instead, Green Bay won all six games to earn its fourth NFC North title in five years and eighth straight trip to the playoffs.

For Martinez and the 15 other rookies on the Packers' 53-man roster, it was a masterclass in how to deal with adversity and prepare for the postseason.

"I think kind of going through it, I think helps," said Martinez, a fourth-round pick out of Stanford. "I wouldn't say it's a positive thing, but having to win all of our games, run the table, do that type of thing. Every single game was, 'Hey, we want to win this. This is a playoff game.'

"So moving forward into the playoffs, I kind of still was just like, 'Hey, this is another game we've got to win. This is another game we've got to get the job done to be able to move on to the next round.'"

That experience paid dividends for the Packers and their young players during a 38-13 win over the Giants to advance to this Sunday's NFC Divisional playoff game against Dallas.

All five of the Packers' defensive draft picks and undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice saw action in the win over the Giants with the six combining to play 99 defensive snaps.

First-round pick Kenny Clark, who helped contain New York's running game to 71 yards last Sunday, credits Packers Head Coach McCarthy for instilling confidence in the team during its four-game losing streak.

McCarthy emitted positivity in the team meeting room. When breaking into individual positions, defensive line coach Mike Trgovac echoed McCarthy's message in preaching to Clark and the rest his players about the importance of sticking together.

In following the lead of the coaches and veterans, Clark and the rest of the Packers' rookies jumped on board with the belief the team could rebound to earn a postseason bid.

Now that they've made it, the sense of urgency in their first playoff appearance isn't dissimilar to anything the Packers experienced during the final weeks of end the regular season.

"Every game was a must-win game. It was just like the playoffs," Clark said. "As much pressure as it was in the playoffs, the pressure we had coming into those last six games we had to win – those were all pressure games. We couldn't lose a game. I think it helped us tremendously."

When looking at an entire season, McCarthy breaks the year into intervals of offseason program, training camp and preseason, regular season and finally playoffs.

It's up to the team to take it to another level during each segment of the year, with the sense of urgency getting turned up a notch in November, December and into the new year.

That cycle was sped up a little earlier than usual this year due to the team scratching and clawing to make the playoffs, but the byproduct of that winning streak can be felt in the locker room.

"Anytime you can demonstrate exactly the competitive environment, the atmosphere you're getting ready to play in, I think it helps anybody in the area of competition," McCarthy said.

From the rookies to 15-year veteran Julius Peppers, the Packers learned a valuable lesson in handling adversity throughout their journey to the postseason.

Even when the wins started piling up, there were still instances where the team had to rally. Right guard T.J. Lang points to the Packers' 30-27 win over Chicago in Week 15 when Green Bay held off the Bears after relinquishing a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Mental toughness is what Lang believes enabled the Packers to prevail at Soldier Field and can be credited for the Packers being one of eight teams still in the running for a Super Bowl ring.

"I think that's one of our greatest strengths right now is the way we stick together through adversity," Lang said. "I think everyone understands that adversity is inevitable. It's going to hit you every game. The good teams, you overcome it and you use it as a tool. It's definitely a great characteristic of our football team.

"We talk about overcoming the negatives, staying positive and doing whatever it takes to get the win. That's something that's definitely been a great characteristic of our team the last couple months."

For Green Bay's large rookie class, the 2016 campaign has been a perfect example of what Packer football is all about.

While the Packers enter Sunday's game as road underdogs, that isn't how they look at it. The only thing that matters is staying true to themselves.

It's that approach that put the Packers in this position and they hope it can help them punch a ticket to the NFC Championship Game.

"At the end of the day, this is football and we need to go down there and play our game," McCarthy said. "Stay within ourselves. We've established the way we're going to play over the course of the season. That won't change. That's the biggest thing we emphasized with our whole football team."

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