GREEN BAY – For the first time in nine years, the Green Bay Packers will play the final two games of the regular season with the knowledge their season will be over after Week 17.
That reality was still sinking into the locker room less than 24 hours after Atlanta's 24-21 victory over Tampa Bay shut the door on any hope of another Green Bay run, eliminating the Packers from playoff contention and ending the franchise record for consecutive postseason appearances at eight.
The atmosphere was a complete 180-degree turn from last week when the locker room was beaming with the anticipation of Aaron Rodgers' return. While the two-time MVP quarterback had his moments on Sunday against Carolina, the Packers ultimately fell short in a 31-24 road defeat to the Panthers.
As the Packers ready for the NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings, players who have grown accustomed to postseason football were still coming to terms with the fact Saturday night's game at Lambeau Field will be the last home game they'll play this season.
"This is a winning team. It hurts to not get there," linebacker Nick Perry said. "Everybody had in their mind that we always had a shot to get it done, and we just came up short. This was one of those games where we needed our absolute best to win, and we came up short."
This is unfamiliar territory for most in the Packers' locker room. Of the current 53-man roster, 30 homegrown veterans don't know what it's like to have a season end in Week 17.
Cornerback Davon House, a fourth-round pick in 2011, re-signed with the Packers last March after two playoff-less seasons in Jacksonville to chase the Super Bowl ring that eluded him during his first four seasons in Green Bay.
"It sucks," House said. "Every year, regardless of the team you're on, you're hoping for the Super Bowl. It sucks that we didn't even get to make it to the dance. The team's going to continue to grow from this, continue to get better from this."
The Packers have a chance to play spoiler over the next two weeks, though it remains to be seen what role Rodgers might play in that endeavor after only recently being cleared to play after missing seven games with the broken collarbone.
The next two weeks also will give the team a chance to look at some of its younger players, who are looking to show they belong.
"People are still playing for jobs," Perry said. "People still want to make sure they're giving their absolute best going into the next year. As long as I'm out there, I'm going to give it my all – that's just the mentality I think all these guys in the room have, just to finish off strong. There's nothing much we can do at this point, just continue to push and just improve yourself."
Veteran receiver Randall Cobb, exhausted after the Carolina game, said he fell asleep and didn't discover the outcome of the Atlanta-Tampa Bay game until Tuesday morning.
Cobb expects the team to stick together and finish strong. At the same time, there is a feeling of disappointment about coming up short. That's something that will stick with Cobb and many of his teammates heading into this offseason.
"This is unacceptable," Cobb said. "We have too good of a team with too many good players in this locker room to be on the outside looking in, and not have a way in. We definitely have to figure it out this offseason, and come back ready to play next year."
For most, the goal now is to play for each other in hopes of finishing a year filled with adversity on a high note.
"This is definitely a character check with all this," guard Lane Taylor said. "Obviously we know we're not going to the playoffs. But you have other teammates who want to see if you have heart, if you have guts and kind of see what you play for."