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Packers not ready to relinquish hope of a miraculous run to playoffs

GREEN BAY — The game was a distant memory before they even exited the locker room Monday night, its details left outside in the bitter cold, faded like their playoff odds seemed to be for most of this wretched season.

There was no celebrating inside a hushed Lambeau Field home locker room. No reminiscing on the Green Bay Packers’ most dominant win in almost three months, a 24-12 victory against the Los Angeles Rams. They treated Monday night like another step in an unlikely, unfinished journey. Another piece to a puzzle that would complete a near-miraculous picture.

‘We’ve got a chance,’ cornerback Rasul Douglas said. ‘But it starts with us. We know we have to keep winning.’

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There’s an arduous climb ahead if the Packers complete this chance the rest of the NFC seems insistent on dropping into their laps like an early Christmas gift. At the podium, Aaron Rodgers subtracted the math his team faced entering its final four games. “It’s three now,” he said. Preston Smith focused on what’s remaining, approaching ‘this last stretch of games’ with the ‘right mindset.’

Elgton Jenkins, fixing the buckle of his jeans at his locker, needed a reminder there were almost nine minutes left when the Packers offense took the field for the drive that closed out their second consecutive win, perhaps the most impressive drive of this season.

‘I actually didn’t know it was nine minutes,’ he said.

With this much work left to do, those details are mundane. Something bigger might be at stake, an opportunity increasingly coming into focus. It’s almost shocking how much of a playoff shot the Packers have after their second double-digit victory this season, their first since Week 2 against the Chicago Bears.

Asked the last time these Packers beat an opponent by at least 10 points, Jenkins wondered aloud if it was last season. It feels that long. Six weeks ago, the Packers dug themselves into a hole from which teams do not survive. At 3-6 returning from a stunning loss at the Detroit Lions, their fifth consecutive defeat, this team was left for dead.

The turnaround, if two straight wins can be called that, didn’t come immediately. The Packers gained momentum with an overtime comeback against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10. They fumbled it four days later in a short-week loss at home to the Tennessee Titans. Before traveling to Philadelphia a week later, Douglas said it was time to start making offseason plans if his team lost.

The Packers dropped that one 40-33. Their defense allowed 363 rushing yards. Vultures were circling.

The season crossed what should have been the brink in Philly. At 4-8, the conversation was whether Jordan Love should start the last five games. A top-10 pick in the draft felt more likely than the postseason. The idea these Packers would have a pulse now, that they would actually play meaningful football down the stretch, was unfathomable.

This is not a run-the-table stretch like 2016. Back then, the Packers were 8-6 after 14 games. Now they’re 6-8.

‘We dug ourselves into a hole,’ Jenkins said.

Since then, the NFC has started to crumble around them. The Seattle Seahawks have forgotten how to win, losing four of their past five games. The Washington Commanders haven’t won since November.

On Monday, the Packers won consecutive games for the first time since Week 4.

‘Before the Bears week,’ Rodgers said, ‘we knew we had a bye afterwards, and those of us who sometimes peek ahead knew we had to win five, and then have a lot of things go our way. So we’ve won two, and just about everything we’ve needed to happen has gone our way. Just about.’

Rodgers cracked a knowing grin.

‘So,’ he added, ‘things are looking up.’

None of it matters if the Packers travel to Miami and lose to the Dolphins on Christmas. In a week, they’ll learn whether this resurgence is legitimate, or some sort of football fool’s gold. This was the easy part, beating the Bears and Rams. ‘A couple teams,’ Rodgers said, ‘we should’ve beat.’ Five NFL teams have at least 10 losses this season. The Bears and Rams are two of them.

But small progress is still progress, especially for this team. The Packers scored just nine points in that loss to Detroit, back when the Lions were 1-6. They let a 14-3 lead slip away in Washington, back when the Commanders were 2-4. They lost after leading 17-3 against the New York Giants, a team that snapped a four-game winless streak Sunday night.

No team was a pushover. Even a team with Baker Mayfield making only his second start, behind an offensive line that had allowed more sacks this season than all but three NFL teams, and a defense without Aaron Donald.

So a game like Monday’s, when the Packers scored on their opening drive and never trailed, built their lead to 24-6 late in the third quarter, and sealed it by keeping possession over the final nine minutes, is as much of a statement as they’ve made all year. Treating an inferior opponent like an inferior opponent, no matter how imperfect they played, is enough to wonder if the Packers are peaking at the right time. Because if they are, the door might be cracked just enough to sneak into the playoffs, a thought that once seemed laughable.

At his locker, Preston Smith searched for what’s different between then and now, what’s clicked for this team that seemed so elusive during its five-game losing streak.

‘We won,’ he eventually shrugged.

Then he dug deeper.

‘Guys had a lot of energy,’ he said, ‘and I felt this week we were practicing and had the energy like we had a winning record. I feel like we were missing that energy, and now we’re getting back to feeling like the Packers again. That energy felt like an old Packers team.’

They’ll find out in six days whether any of this matters. Maybe the Packers simply beat two teams that happen to be worse than them. The odds are still long. The questions at quarterback, at left tackle, at defensive coordinator still remain. They do not control their fate, needing help to pull off a postseason run, but it’s help the middle of the NFC pack seems willing to give.

If the Packers win their final three, Seattle must lose once more. They play Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City on Christmas Eve.

The Commanders must lose two of their final three. They play at San Francisco, home against Cleveland and home against Dallas.

These final three matchups, at the Dolphins before returning home against the Minnesota Vikings and Lions, are tougher than the past two. In Miami, the Packers will meet an opponent fighting for its own playoff life. They will be in South Florida’s energy-sapping heat, a different world from Monday night’s bitter cold. If they return from Miami with a win, they’ll have put themselves in position to believe.

It’s a hope nobody inside the Packers locker room was ready to relinquish Monday night.

‘I think everyone likes bonus checks,’ receiver Allen Lazard said, allowing a smile. ‘So it’s very exciting to think we could get some extra money in our pocket. No, obviously, the biggest end goal being the Super Bowl and everything, it’s still far down the road, but knowing it’s still a possibility, I think everyone is encouraged that we can still close out these last three games.’

This post appeared first on USA TODAY

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