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For Packers, playoffs are 'the next opportunity'

Green Bay has already played with its season on the line

Head Coach Matt LaFleur
Head Coach Matt LaFleur

GREEN BAY – To say the intensity of the game picks up in the postseason isn't just a throwaway phrase.

Those who have played and coached in the NFL believe it's absolutely true.

"You can't take a play off," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said Monday. "Not that we ever want that, but I just think the intensity of the game is heightened. Every play, guys are straining."

So the question looms how the league's youngest team, the Green Bay Packers, will adjust to the way seasoned pros crank up their game when more than half the roster has never experienced the playoffs.

From LaFleur's perspective, the key will be drawing upon the do-or-die mentality the Packers have been forced to adopt the last three weeks with their season hanging in the balance.

From the moment Green Bay lost at home to Tampa Bay in mid-December, its backs have been against the wall. It needed road wins on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve and finally back home in Week 18 to extend the season.

One false step, that was it, and that's where they still are as the NFC's seventh and final seed.

"I think we've been going through this the last few weeks," LaFleur said, expressing confidence his young team won't be bothered by the added pressure of playoff football. "We knew what was at stake.

"I mean, the last three weeks, basically, have been playoff games for us. So really, it's the next opportunity."

The biggest difference is the last three opponents – Carolina, Minnesota and Chicago – were not playoff teams, while the No. 2-seeded Dallas Cowboys are the NFC East champs and await the Packers' arrival for Sunday's 3:30 p.m. CT kickoff.

The Cowboys (12-5) are 8-0 at home this season and a franchise hungry for its first Super Bowl appearance (or NFC title game appearance for that matter) in 28 years.

Other than processing the magnitude of the game and the atmosphere that'll surround it, LaFleur doesn't see his young squad approaching the task any differently. The Packers (9-8) pulled themselves out of holes when they were 2-5, 3-6 and 6-8 by focusing on daily improvement in practice, and they'll continue to channel their energy that direction.

"I fully believe these guys have the mindset of just showing up and continuing to work, to try to get a little bit better," LaFleur said. "Our guys, they know it starts with the work that they put in and the preparation and it's going to be a big week for us."

Some questions still linger regarding the team's health on offense.

Receiver Christian Watson has missed five straight games with a hamstring injury and his status moving forward remains in doubt.

Receiver Romeo Doubs left Sunday's game vs. Chicago with a chest injury, was taken to the hospital during the game for tests, and is considered day to day. So is running back AJ Dillon, who missed the Bears game with a shoulder/neck stinger.

Tight end Luke Musgrave returned from a six-game absence due to a lacerated kidney to play nine offensive snaps, catching one pass. The hope is he can build upon that workload.

It's been a long time since quarterback Jordan Love had all his potential weapons at his disposal, but he's been making it work regardless throughout a strong second half to his first season as a starter.

Whoever's available will keep plugging away at practice and bring their best to the table. That's just another way the playoffs are an extension of the Packers' current season, not a new one, even as the opportunity matters more now that the playoffs are actually here.

"It's going to be the same mindset that we've had," LaFleur said. "You can preach that and talk about it all the time, but I think there's another thing actually going and doing it.

"It's going to be just a great experience for our guys to go through this, and we're looking forward to the challenge."

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