Veteran Packers appreciative for new shot at postseason glory

QB Aaron Rodgers
QB Aaron Rodgers

GREEN BAY – While many in the Packers' locker room get ready for their first NFL playoff appearance Sunday night, there also are a dozen veterans who've been eagerly awaiting Green Bay's return to postseason play.

The 2016 rookie class of Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, Blake Martinez, Kyler Fackrell and Geronimo Allison advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game as rookies.

The same goes for Davante Adams and Corey Linsley, the two remaining members of the 2014 draft class, while David Bakhtiari was a rookie left tackle when Green Bay won the NFC North title in dramatic fashion over Chicago in 2013.

And then there's the four remaining members from the Packers' Super Bowl XLV team – Aaron Rodgers, Mason Crosby, Tramon Williams and Bryan Bulaga.

With Sunday's NFC Divisional matchup with Seattle on the horizon, all 12 players derive motivation from different places. But they're united in their appreciation for the opportunity at hand following a two-year postseason absence.

"Once you've been out of it for two years like we were with the playoffs, you appreciate these so much more," said Bulaga, who at 21 years old was the youngest player in NFL history to start a Super Bowl game. "It's not a guarantee every year that you're going to be in, so being here you're trying to relate to guys who haven't been here that every play matters, every snap matters."

Of the four remaining players with Super Bowl rings, Williams is the only one in his second stint with the Packers. After leaving as an unrestricted free agent in 2014, Williams played two seasons with Cleveland and another with Arizona before re-signing with Green Bay in March 2018.

His previous final game with the Packers came in the 2014 NFC Championship, when Russell Wilson connected with Jermaine Kearse on a 35-yard touchdown to clinch a 28-22 overtime victory.

Five years later, Williams told reporters this week he's moved on from that game. However, Williams is thankful for Green Bay bringing him back two years ago and giving him a chance to potentially end his career on a much higher note.

"I think like anybody when you establish yourself in a certain position with a certain team, you want it to go out ideal," Williams said. "And ideally, that wasn't the way that I wanted to go out as a Packer. If I did, then I would live with it. No doubt about it. But I was thankful enough to get another opportunity, and I will forever be grateful for that."

Rodgers has had one of his most enjoyable seasons in 2019. Whether it's been the relationships he's cultivated with an established veteran like Marcedes Lewis or even an undrafted free agent like Allen Lazard, Rodgers feels the character, continuity and resolve of this year's team has propelled it into a special category.

Rodgers, now in his 15th NFL season, is roughly the same age Brett Favre was when the Packers drafted him in the first round back in 2005. The landscape has changed slightly from five years ago when Rodgers was still a decade away from his goal of playing into his 40s. Now, "I'm 36 so now we're a half a decade away."

That's why a run like the Packers have had this season means just a little bit more to Rodgers – not to mention few expected Green Bay to experience such immediate success under first-year Head Coach Matt LaFleur. The Packers' 13-win regular season after going 6-9-1 a year ago marked the greatest one-year turnaround in franchise history.

Nearly 10 years removed from the Packers' Super Bowl triumph in Dallas, Rodgers stepped back in reflection when asked this week about chasing another Lombardi Trophy. For everything he's accomplished, the two-time MVP quarterback wants another championship and is willing to do "whatever it takes" to get that job done.

"It's on my mind every day," Rodgers said of a possible second league title. "That's why we play the game. That's why you put in the time in the offseason, that's why you do the little things. It's to put yourself in this position, where we're two games away from being able to compete for that. I'm 36, I know what this is all about. This is an important opportunity for us."

The Packers indubitably are the healthiest they've been since 2014 entering Sunday. This week, many veterans have driven home to the younger players on the roster how special these seasons can be, while also reminding them to treat the postseason just like any other game.

Sometimes that can be easier said than done. Bulaga points out how "momentum shifts in playoffs are like nothing else." Every team is supremely talented and the complexion of a game can turn on just one play. When adversity sets in, it's critical to stay dialed in and move on to the next play.

The Packers have experience where it counts, though. In addition to the 12 remaining Packers from the 2016 NFC Championship Game, recent free-agent signings Za'Darius and Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Lewis also possess postseason experience from their previous NFL stops.

It has been a special week, though, for those who played a role in the Packers' eight consecutive playoff appearances from 2009-16. After a two-year absence, those dozen players are champing at the bit for another shot at postseason glory.

"It's what we do this for," Bulaga said. "This is what it's about."

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