GREEN BAY – The Packers were a confident bunch last year at this time, but this year they're at another level.
Not the dangerous take-for-granted or "we-got-this" type of assuredness. But in repeating their 13-3 record from a year ago, the Packers feel better about who they are, and they have good reason to, as they prep for another run at a Super Bowl.
"Offensively, we're just a much better team than we were," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said this week. "We're a much more efficient team. That helps, for sure. Last year, we were just so up and down. I think that's been the biggest difference offensively is we're playing with a lot more confidence."
In 2019, the Packers' offense entered the playoffs ranked 18th in the league in total yards, 23rd in third-down efficiency and 15th in points. In 2020, those three rankings climbed to fifth, second and first, respectively.
The lulls offensively have been fewer and farther between than last season, and throughout the year, the Packers performed admirably against a number of defenses that ended up among the league's best, including New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago, and even Indianapolis in defeat.
As a matchup with the Los Angeles Rams' No. 1 scoring defense looms on Saturday at Lambeau Field, the Packers go into it knowing they've played to their standard against a similar level of competition. That wasn't necessarily the case last year, particularly when the rematch at San Francisco in the NFC title game came less than two months after an abysmal regular-season showing there.
"When there's eight teams left, every team is good, and I'd say all of them have really good defenses, too," Rodgers said. "There's no cakewalks. There's no easy games. It comes down to execution and the little things that we talk about all the time.
"We always talk about starting fast. We've done a good job at that, scoring on the first possession of many games this season, which would definitely help us on Saturday. But we know it's gonna be a game that goes the distance."
Defensively, the optimism isn't misplaced either. In looking at the same three key categories, while the Packers' ranking in points allowed shifted slightly the other way this year, from ninth in 2019 to 13th, total yards (18th to ninth) and third down (15th to tied for 10th) did improve.
Most important, the Packers feel their defense is in a different place now than it was earlier in the season. Green Bay held four of its last five opponents to 16 points or less. Only twice before December did the Packers hold anyone under 20.
"I really like the progress we've made on the defensive side of the ball the last half of the season," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "There's been a great emphasis on all 11 doing your responsibility to the best of your ability on every play. I feel like these guys have really taken that to heart and taken ownership over doing their job, just playing together, swarming. And that's what it's going to take."
Seeing the trend heading in the right direction means more than the season-long numbers at this point. The defense had a similarly strong finish in 2019, but again, a couple of things feel different.
First, with the offense one of the best in the league this year, there's a greater chance to right the ship, and quickly, if a game starts going sideways. Second, a run defense that was never really shored up last year and ultimately cost the Packers with the season on the line has trended up along with the performance of the overall defense.
"It plays a lot into it," defensive lineman Kenny Clark said of the unit's overall confidence being tied to stopping the run. "I feel like that's been like our Achilles heel going into many years here. We gotta be able to consistently stop the run, especially in December and January and the playoffs, so we can win big games. That's something that's been holding us back for a long time here."
The turnaround in that area began in Week 12. Since Chicago's David Montgomery broke off a 57-yard run on the Bears' first handoff in that Sunday night game, the Packers have allowed opposing backs just 455 yards over those six contests. On 118 rushes, that computes to a healthy (defensively speaking) 3.9 average per carry.
It's no coincidence that over that same span, the defense generated half of its takeaways – nine of 18 – on the season with opposing teams struggling to run the ball.
"First and foremost, when we can stop the run, that's when we can have that fun in the back end and make plays," safety Adrian Amos said. "When you limit the yardage on first and second down, you can go have fun on third down."
Along with a team camaraderie that feels as strong as a year ago, it all adds up to a belief that this team is different and can do what last year's couldn't.
"To be one of the final four teams in the NFC and have a team that has the opportunity to go the distance, (with) the type of talent and chemistry that you're always looking for, building during the season," Rodgers said, "we've gotten to this point with a lot of good football and guys coming together the right way."
The Green Bay Packers practiced on Clarke Hinkle Field on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.