CHICAGO—The Packers are officially a hot team late in the season. That's what Sunday's win over the Bears announced to the rest of the NFL.
We know this because the Packers have won eight of their last nine games with a defense that's climbing the charts, a quarterback that's pitching touchdown passes in an offense that's making opposing defenses play the run, and injured players are returning to health at the same time that there are no new injuries to report. All the Packers need now is their kicker to return.
"This was a big game for us. Now we're looking to improve our seed," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said following the Packers' division-clinching, 21-13 win over the Bears on Sunday.
None of this has come easily for this team. In fact, for most of the season, there was doubt the 2012 season would be anything more than a tease. The Packers just never looked like the team that cruised to 13-0 and 15-1 in 2011.
"It's been a grind. This season, more than last year and even 2010, has been a grind. To get a win like this means a lot," Rodgers said.
The Packers had to grind through an avalanche of injuries that cost them Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings and Clay Matthews for long stretches of the season. They lost their first-round draft pick for the year at midseason, their first-round draft pick from two years ago for the season a few weeks ago, and never had their first-round pick of 2011 at any time in this season.
How many teams can endure those kinds of losses and be a hot team in December trying to win a first-round bye?
There was the call in Seattle and the fall in Indianapolis, and at 2-3 critics were beginning to wonder just how good those 15-1 Packers really were. The 2012 Packers rallied from their slow start, but their wins weren't of the impressive type and the Packers found themselves almost having to apologize weekly for another ugly win.
Apologies aren't necessary any longer. The Packers are what they are, which is to say NFC North champions, again, and threatening to win the No. 2 spot in the NFC playoffs. You might want to give the two hole a look. It's been a favorable launch position.
"It's all about who's hot at the right time. It's all about how you're playing in late December and how healthy your team is," Rodgers said.
The best thing about this team is that it's playing with grit. That's what wins championships. Style points win OTA practices. Finding ways to make plays at crunch time is the thing of champions.
"We've dealt with a lot of adversity. I think this team is playing the right way," Rodgers added.
If there was a turning point in this season, it would seem to be the Indianapolis-Houston weeks of the season. The loss in Indianapolis was rock bottom. The win in Houston was rebirth.
"What Houston did for us is remind us we have some special players. When you're 15-1, you forget how difficult it is," Rodgers said.
The Packers now have the look of a team whose offense is about to realize its potential, which it hasn't done for any extended period of time this season. At the same time, their defense appears poised to become dominant. It's something last year's Packers couldn't say as they headed into the playoffs. That team had 15 wins, but it didn't have a playoff-caliber defense. This team does.
"After that first series, I thought our defense was able to take over the game," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said following the win over the Bears. "We have a lot more to offer in all three phases. When we're balanced and our playmakers get into the secondary, it's a different game. We need to threaten these secondaries more and more."
Should that happen, the Packers will become more than a hot team. They might become unbeatable. Additional coverage - Dec. 16
- Game notes: is the Packers' TD maker
- Locker Room Report: Packers defense healthy and reaching peak
- Game Recap: Packers clinch crown, bring playoffs back to Lambeau
- Postgame Press Conferences
- Game Highlights: Packers at Bears
- Locker Room Interviews
- Game Photos: Packers at Bears
- Gameday Chat Transcript