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The NFC playoff races are just beginning

Offensive line’s steadiness, rookie WR Davante Adams’ rise will be keys for Packers offense down the stretch


GREEN BAY—As the Packers study the Falcons this week, they don't see a sub-.500 team with the league's last-ranked defense.

They see a team that's got everything to play for, and that's all that will matter come Monday night at Lambeau Field.

"We're expecting their best shot," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of the Falcons, who are tied for first in the NFC South despite a 5-7 record that includes two gut-wrenching, last-second defeats.

"They're fighting for a playoff spot; so are we. We'd like to get to 10 wins before we start talking about the 'p' word, so we'll hopefully get that done this week."

Ten wins has always been the first step Mike McCarthy talks about in terms of postseason aspirations, but it's not lost on the Packers that 10 victories guarantees nothing this year.

Seven teams in the NFC have at least seven victories with four games to play, including the Packers (9-3) and Lions (8-4) in the NFC North, with Green Bay currently tied for the conference's best mark.

But the battle has just begun. Given the NFC South winner gets a postseason berth regardless of record, the seven teams with seven-plus wins are fighting for five playoff spots. Two of them will be packing up their lockers at the end of the month.

That's motivation enough for the Packers to avoid the proverbial letdown after a big, emotional victory over the Patriots last week. The players said the extra day off this week helped them refresh and refocus before they returned to the practice field on Thursday, and they're staying tuned in to what's at stake from here on out.

"It's just guys being professionals. We hold each other accountable throughout the week," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "We know what we have in front of us. We have a four-game stretch here, Detroit is right behind us. We can't let up at all and we have to make sure we take care of business."

Rodgers referred to the "urgency" that comes with December football and called on the leaders of the team, himself included, to convey that urgency to the younger players in the locker room while projecting calm and confidence.

On the field, Rodgers' confidence continues to grow in rookie receiver Davante Adams, who's "laying the foundation for his career" and will be "a big-time player for us." Adams broke out with six receptions for 121 yards against New England and has quickly moved past his goal-line drop of a TD pass.

"It is what it is," Adams said. "I didn't catch it, and I had to get over it."

Rodgers' confidence also couldn't be higher in his offensive line, which he says has been the key to success. He credits the guys up front for the opportunities he's had to extend plays and search longer for open receivers.

"They've been healthy since Week 3 with the same group, and those guys are playing really, really well," Rodgers said. "It doesn't matter who's out there running routes, when you have that kind of time and comfort in the pocket, you expect somebody to get open."

Veteran guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang have been playing banged up, but they've pushed through. Rookie center Corey Linsley has earned praise for his smarts and minimal mistakes, while tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga have anchored the edges in both the run and pass games.

Their charge this week, mentioned by both McCarthy and Sitton, is to run the ball better this week than they have in the past against the Falcons. In the last two meetings between the clubs, in 2011 and '13, Atlanta has held Green Bay to per-rush averages of just 2.9 and 3.4 yards.

"I'm proud of the way this line has played this year," Sitton said. "I've said it before I think it's the best line I've ever had. It's been a good run. We have to keep finding ways to get better. That can be tough late in the season, but we have to keep finding ways."


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