Packers took important step for 2021 last week

Getting reminded what it takes to win a close game has value

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The Packers' young offensive line tunes into QB Aaron Rodgers in the huddle at San Francisco

GREEN BAY – It's not just a team's record that starts over each year.

Every NFL season is its own entity, and even though the Packers did everything they could within the constraints of the depressed salary cap to keep last year's team together for another run at a title, it's still in many respects a new assortment of players.

Within that group is a collective psyche that, much like the win-loss mark, has to be built from the ground up, and the Packers laid a key piece of groundwork for 2021 last week by pulling out a tight game on the road against a top-flight team.

"Every year, you've got to re-learn how to win with this group of guys," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Wednesday after the first practice leading up to Pittsburgh's visit to Lambeau Field for Week 4. "A bunch of us who've been around and know what it feels like and what it should look like, obviously we have a foundation of that.

"But every team has to learn how to win, from No. 1 to 69 on the roster."

Numerically, Rodgers was referring to the 53-man roster and 16-player practice squad, which sees a significant amount of turnover on an annual basis. That's life in this league.

In Green Bay's case, there are also plenty of changes from 2020 amongst the regulars seeing extensive playing time, from several young guns on the offensive line (Josh Myers, Royce Newman, Jon Runyan, and most recently Yosh Nijman) to newcomers playing key roles on defense (linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, cornerback Eric Stokes) to new return men and a late-arriving punter/holder on special teams (Kylin Hill, Amari Rodgers, Corey Bojorquez).

In the season's first two games, a buckle-down, come-together, late-game situation never materialized. The Packers were blown out in Week 1 and rebounded to win in Week 2 by three scores.

The prime-time showdown in San Francisco required every last second on the clock to get the victory, and while veterans like Rodgers, Davante Adams, Marcedes Lewis, Kenny Clark and others have won plenty of games in that fashion over the years, it still matters for this year's team, as a whole, to get one like that under its belt.

"Individually, certain guys have that kind of killer instinct in them, and certain guys have to learn that and develop it over time," Adams said. "With guys like me and Aaron, I'd definitely say we figured that part out, but the important thing is making sure everybody on the team, and on the offense for us, has adopted the same mindset and understands what it takes to win in those types of situations."

Rodgers emphasized the importance of the walk-off, 30-28 triumph over the 49ers in part because the team's victory celebration was so muted after beating the Lions on Monday Night Football.

Even when a team can cruise through a fourth quarter with a lead every once in a while, veterans like Rodgers never lose sight of how difficult wins are to come by, no matter how they're earned.

The raucous celebration on the Levi's Stadium field after Mason Crosby's 51-yard field goal went through the uprights reflected how much it can take sometimes from everyone involved to get a win.

"Couldn't quite feel that after the Detroit game, for whatever reason," Rodgers said. "It didn't feel like the excitement of how special it is to win.

"Every year you have to re-learn and I think readjust the perspective and savor how special it is to win in this league, and never take it for granted."

Dealing with the ebbs and flows of a close, hard-fought game provides a building block for the rest of the season, too. The Packers saw a 17-point second-quarter lead, and eventually a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, vanish with less than a minute left. A ton of hard work was wiped out.

Again, almost everyone individually has been through that before in their football lives, and those experiences matter. This particular group of Packers that works out and practices and plays together now has been through it, too, and can reflect on what it handled well and perhaps not so well.

"It's a roller coaster of emotions as you go through those games," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "There's a lot of highs and a lot of lows and it's so important for all of us to try to stay as even-keeled as possible. I'm talking to myself when I say that."

There's also a fine line between appreciating a tough win and what it means for the team, and thinking it's going to help prepare for the next opponent. It's there to be drawn upon Sunday if necessary, but before kickoff against the Steelers, it won't get anyone very far.

"Like we told the team, winning's momentary, and you have to do everything that you can to go out and earn the next win," LaFleur said. "And that starts by putting in the work."

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