Midseason adversity helps Packers relish playoff bid

Secondary adjusts to injuries at cornerback


DETROIT — Amidst all the commotion in the visiting locker room at Ford Field Sunday night, Jared Cook quietly packed his bag before putting the NFC North championship cap on his head.

It was a jubilant scene in the aftermath of the Packers' 31-24 win over the Detroit Lions, securing the team's fifth division title in six years and eighth consecutive playoff appearance.

Yet, Sunday's victory had a different meaning for Cook, who will be making his first trip to the playoffs in eight NFL seasons when the No. 4 seed Packers play host to the No. 5 New York Giants at Lambeau Field next Sunday.

Cook, who had four catches for 56 yards against the Lions, signed with the Packers this offseason in hopes of finally adding a postseason appearance to his resume.

On Sunday, it finally happened.

"It feels amazing, man," Cook said. "It's a long time coming. It feels great being here. I love being here. We still have some hard work to go, but the hard work that we put in so far is making strides."

Cook was among the dozens of players relishing in the Packers' fifth NFC North championship in six seasons, a scenario many outsiders didn't believe was possible after the team's 4-6 start.

The feeling was different inside Lambeau Field, though. It was a little more than a month ago that quarterback Aaron Rodgers spoke about how he believed this year's team had what it took to "run the table" and make the playoffs.

The team responded. Week after week, the Packers pulled together in the face of injuries and setbacks to fashion a six-game winning streak that now has them as one of the hottest teams in the NFL entering the postseason.

"How do we do it? We just believe in each other," defensive lineman Letroy Guion said. "We played for each other every time we put our hand in the ground. We fight hard. We never give up. We keep our focus. We never blinked. That's a true champion-type mentality.

"I love the Packers. I'm glad we came back from that losing streak. I knew we could. That's why people asking us earlier what's wrong? I said nothing's wrong. We just had to get back on the right page."

One thing that stuck with Guion and many players was the team's message this week of one chip, one chair, and the reality it only takes maximizing one opportunity to make something special happen.

To get to this point, contributions needed to come from everywhere on the roster. Established stars such as Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and Julius Peppers have taken their games to another level over the last month, while young players stepped up across the board.

The challenges were real, but at no point during the team's midseason struggles did the Packers feel they wouldn't find an answer.

"We have a special group of guys," running back Ty Montgomery said. "There's been a lot of other guys who have done a lot of things this year to help this football team. It's paying off and we ran the table up to this point, but it's playoff season now so we have to keep running it."

The Packers never folded despite the heavy odds. Instead, they only grew closer through the adversity. Now, the Packers head into next Sunday's NFC Wild Card playoff game against the New York Giants with a great deal of momentum on their side.

If the team's six-game run has proven anything, it's that you can throw out the percentages when talking about the 2016 Packers.

 "Someone told me earlier we had a two percent chance of winning six straight – whatever that means," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "No matter how you do the mathematics, we did it and I'm thankful we did."

Secondary switch-up: As has been the case for most of the season, Sunday's game against Detroit came with its own set of challenges for the Packers' secondary.

Three cornerbacks – Quinten Rollins (neck), Damarious Randall (knee) and Makinton Dorleant (knee) – all exited with injuries and didn't return.

It required Hyde to play outside cornerback during the fourth quarter and safety Morgan Burnett to slide into the slot of the nickel of dime sub-packages.

Two undrafted rookie safeties, Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, had to take on big roles in the nickel and dime with Brice manning the other slot position and Evans lining up next to Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

"I think it was good that it happened in the middle of the game rather than going into the week," Hyde said. "Obviously, we weren't thinking. We put Morgan all over the place. I played all over the place, doing it in practice benefits. Coaches throw us all over the place and we get it done. You saw that (Sunday night)."

Hyde said he couldn't recall the last time he played outside cornerback, but he felt the rotations the coaching staff uses in practice kept everyone ready.

He went on to make one of the biggest plays of the game when he picked off Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on a back-shoulder throw intended for Golden Tate in the front side of the end zone with 1 minute, 30 seconds remaining.

"It just shows his versatility," Burnett said. "Micah is a guy you can line up anywhere. He's not going to question, he's not going to be hesitant. They said, 'You're moving to corner,' and Micah didn't blink. He went out there and caught a pick against a really good receiver."

Rollins' situation: Rollins was placed on a stretcher and carted off the field after sustaining a neck injury with 1 minute left in the third quarter.

A second-year cornerback out of Miami (Ohio), Rollins was transported to a local hospital to undergo further evaluation. The team announced Rollins was conscious with movement, while Head Coach Mike McCarthy said afterward that early signs were positive.

"Personally I just said a quick prayer for him," Burnett said. "You don't like to see anyone go down with an injury, especially when the guys have to bring the stretcher out. You don't like to see that in football, period.

"I pray that he has a speedy recovery because at the end of the day it's deeper than football. We're all brothers. This is a brotherhood through this league. We're going to support each other no matter what."

Linebacker Joe Thomas (back) and reserve tackle Jason Spriggs (shoulder) also exited the game with injuries.

Nelson's comeback: Veteran receiver Jordy Nelson finished the regular season with a team-high 97 catches, 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns in his first season back from the knee injury that sidelined him for the 2015 season.

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