Packers' playoff X-factor? Examining what it means and the possibilities

Last two years, divisional round decided by clutch performances in fourth quarter

WR Allen Lazard

GREEN BAY – This time of year, it's fun to talk about who might be the X-factor or unsung hero of an upcoming playoff game.

But what exactly does that mean?

Truth is, a player coming seemingly out of nowhere to make a memorable impact on a win-or-go-home game doesn't happen that often. That's how some like to frame those labels, but it's not very realistic.

More appropriately, an X-factor or unsung hero tends to resemble a player everyone knows who's seeing the field plenty and contributing regularly but just isn't top of mind right now. Perhaps he's done big things in the past but not for a while, meaning he's plenty capable but going about his business quietly at the moment.

Then all of a sudden, boom (in a nod to the late John Madden), there he is with a big splash at an opportune time.

The Packers have had one such player deliver in that moment each of the last two years in the NFC Divisional playoffs, and their cases will be reviewed here before the possibilities for Saturday night against the 49ers will be pondered.

Back in 2019, outside linebacker Preston Smith recorded 12 sacks in the regular season and was by no means "unsung" as a key free-agent acquisition. But here's the thing: He had posted 10 of those sacks in the first 10 games.

Smith had just two sacks over his last six games heading into the playoffs, cooling off down the stretch. Then in the divisional playoff against the Seahawks, there he was at crunch time, getting two sacks of Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter, including a crucial one on third down with just over three minutes to go and the Packers protecting a five-point lead.

He forced a punt that became the last time Seattle touched the ball, and Green Bay moved on. Smith's impact, understated for a while, showed up when it mattered most.

Last year, that type of scenario unfolded on offense. Receiver Allen Lazard started 2020 as a hot target, catching four passes of 25-plus yards and two touchdowns in the season's first three games before sustaining a core muscle injury.

He proceeded to miss six games and then returned to the lineup, but without the highlight-reel production from earlier. Over the last seven games of the regular season, he caught just two passes longer than 14 yards and scored only one touchdown.

Then in the NFC Divisional playoff against the Rams, the Packers led by a touchdown and had the ball midway through the fourth quarter when Lazard streaked down the middle seam to haul in a 58-yard TD pass to put the game away.

"I've always been ready for the moment," Lazard said when asked about that big play this past week, recalling a lesson he learned back in the 2019 preseason, his first with the Packers, when he caught his first TD pass.

"If the ball's not coming my way and I'm not able to make plays, I'm just thinking that eventually it's going to come back (to me)."

It's not easy to stay prepared for when that time comes, but for anyone who's not a Pro Bowl player, that's part of the job. In the playoffs, when anyone's number might be called in a do-or-die situation, it is the job.

Having reached the NFC Championship Game the past two years, the Packers have plenty of experience with role players knowing how to get ready.

Rookie regulars like cornerback Eric Stokes and center Josh Myers may be new to this, but they played in big-time postseason games in college and now have Packers teammates around every corner as examples to follow, if needed.

"The way this team is constructed as far as experience in the playoffs, I think we've rubbed off onto enough guys to where we just spread the experience throughout the locker room," veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis said. "Everything we do is about having championship habits."

It mostly falls on the players to adopt the proper mindset, but it's also up to the coaches to do what they can to prepare their guys to respond without putting them uncomfortably on edge for exactly when that'll be.

There's a fine line between productive urgency and paralyzing intensity that's important to walk.

"The idea for a coach is we have to be calm under pressure, we have to be relaxed," offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. "It's just about keeping everybody calm. Those plays will come to them; let's not chase them, don't be over-aggressive, just do what we do.

"And hey, who knows who will step up and make a play?"

The candidates for this Packers team as the playoffs arrive are numerous.

On offense, receiver Randall Cobb is back after missing the last five games of the regular season due to injury. Maybe Josiah Deguara's 62-yard TD on a tight end screen in the regular-season finale at Detroit – the only reception longer than 25 yards in his career – was a prelude to more. Heck, Lewis is still looking for his first touchdown of the season.

On defense, Stokes has just one interception as a rookie, while veteran safety Adrian Amos hasn't had a pick since Week 10. And, of course, cornerback Jaire Alexander plus edge rushers Za'Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus could be returning from long injury absences.

That list doesn't cover all the possibilities, but the idea is clear. There's bound to be a crunch-time moment Saturday night when the Packers will need someone aside from the usual suspects to come through, and the way this team is wired, whoever it is promises to be ready.

"You can feel our team's hunger each and every day, with so many veteran guys that haven't quite gotten to that pinnacle of football," defensive lineman Dean Lowry said. "You can feel it in the building this week and really throughout the year.

"We're hungry and we're excited to make this run here."

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