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Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari still have plenty to play for

Packers’ starting tackles motivated to finish strong


GREEN BAY – It's true the Packers are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but that doesn't make these final two games any less important to Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari.

Bakhtiari, the two-time All-Pro, wants to finish what he started, and as long as his body agrees with him, fulfill his obligation to protect the blind side of franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers for all 16 regular-season games.

For Bulaga, his desire to play goes even deeper.

In November 2017, the Packers' ninth-year right tackle suffered the second torn anterior cruciate ligament of his career, requiring surgery and another lengthy rehab process to get back on the field.

After questions lingered all offseason whether Bulaga would be ready in time for the start of the regular season, the former first-round pick did the skeptics one better and was cleared in time to play in the Packers' preseason finale in Kansas City.

Battling through occasional nicks and bruises, Bulaga started the first 12 games of the season before spraining his knee two weeks ago against Arizona.

After returning to practice Wednesday, Bulaga echoed the comments of Rodgers and Bakhtiari with his intention to play the season out.

"It wasn't really even a thought in my mind after I nicked this knee up against Arizona that I was not going to try to come back and play on it," Bulaga said. "I'm a football player. If you're able to play, you play. That's the way I looked at it and that's the way I always look at it. Regardless of what our record is, none of that matters to me. I want to be out there for my teammates and play."

It would have been one thing if Bulaga scratched and clawed his way back to the field on his own, but his biggest source of motivation is all the individuals who helped him get back on the field for the start of this season.

It was his wife, Abbie, who kept their household up and running when Bulaga was immobilized for three weeks post-op. It was the physical therapists and trainers who helped Bulaga rehab his knee and get back on the field in just under 10 months.

As the longest-tenured offensive lineman on the roster, Bulaga also felt a responsibility to his teammates and Rodgers to play as long as he was cleared to do so. That mindset applies both then and now.

"Things happen throughout a season," Bulaga said. "It's part of the game, but thankfully none of them have been things I haven't been able to deal with. This last one, you tear an MCL, you kind of have to bide your time on it. That's unfortunately the way it goes."

Bulaga's return to the practice field couldn't come at a better time. Swing tackle Jason Spriggs, who started in place of Bulaga the past two games, didn't practice Wednesday after being diagnosed with a concussion in Chicago on Sunday.

Across the line, Bakhtiari has dealt with his own lower-body injuries this year to start all 14 games. He appeared to be a shoo-in to be voted to the Pro Bowl based on his production, durability and heightened responsibilities due to Rodgers' reduced mobility earlier this year.

Instead, Bakhtiari is again on the outside looking in as a Pro Bowl alternate. The sixth-year veteran admits it's frustrating to be snubbed again, but also understands his value inside the Packers' locker room. As recently as last week, Rodgers referred to Bakhtiari as a left tackle with "Hall of Fame potential."

"I've said since my rookie year – as long as my quarterback is happy, my head coach is happy and the guys upstairs like me, those are the main people I care about," Bakhtiari said.

"Offensive linemen, at the end of the day, are team players. We don't have statistics, so we pride ourselves on wins. We pride ourselves on other players' success in the offense and ultimately winning a Super Bowl. That's all I want."

Bakhtiari agreed it would be "hilarious" if he's voted to a third All-Pro team in a few weeks considering only two NFL left tackles are chosen. Whatever the case, his focus is set squarely on the final two weeks of the 2018 campaign.

After Rodgers reiterated his intention to play Sunday against the New York Jets despite suffering a groin injury against Chicago, both Bakhtiari and Bulaga plan to serve as the offensive line's bookends the rest of the way.

"It's as simple as this, we get paid to play football," Bakhtiari said. "We're only guaranteed 16 games in the regular season. When I signed the contract, it didn't say play until you're out of the playoffs; if that's 12, 14 games, that's what it is. No. I get paid to play 16 and the playoffs are a bonus. So I intend on playing all 16 games and that's how everyone else should.

"We represent not only ourselves, but the organization. For me personally, I plan on putting out a good product for myself and the organization."

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