Packers still have some fight (and faint playoff hopes) left

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers kept the video on his phone, and in the months after the 2016 season, the Green Bay Packers quarterback still got a charge out of watching the clip.

The one where Tennessee Titans cornerback Perrish Cox drilled Rodgers a few steps into the end zone after a touchdown scramble. The one where Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and several other teammates came to his rescue and a scuffle ensued.

That season eventually turned around for the Packers. A few weeks later, Rodgers suggested the Packers could run the table, and they did -- all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

It might be too late for a galvanizing moment to save this season, but if there was one, it might have been late in the second quarter of Sunday’s 34-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the debut of Joe Philbin as the Packers' interim head coach. It was another hit on Rodgers, this one after a 21-yard scramble that ended when Falcons cornerback Brian Poole lowered his head and drilled Rodgers in the all-important right shoulder just as the quarterback began his slide. That’s when Lucas Patrick, the Packers’ fill-in starter at left guard, went after Poole and a massive shoving match ensued. The was no harm done; offsetting penalties on Packers center Corey Linsley and Falcons linebacker Deion Jones meant Rodgers’ run stood.

Who knows if the Packers would have fought this hard had coach Mike McCarthy still been on the job? But in the first game after he was fired with a month left in his 13th season, the Packers showed something. It won’t give them anything extra on their 5-7-1 record, which, remarkably, hasn’t yet eliminated them from playoff contention, but it made an impression on their quarterback.

“I think there’s a lot of fight left in this squad,” Rodgers said. “And it looked a little worse than it actually was, but for Corey to jump in right away, it always means a lot to you, it really does. Whether it’s Corey jumping in right away and then Lucas and Randall or just like it was in Tennessee, it was Randall and Davante right away and then the whole offensive line’s coming.

“So you love that, and I actually saved that clip on my phone and I remember looking back in the offseason fondly at that moment because it means a lot to you as a leader that your guys are going to jump right in there and back you up.”

The Packers also backed up Philbin, who found himself in the difficult position of replacing the coach who brought him back to Green Bay as offensive coordinator earlier this season.

And those in the locker room felt Philbin backed them, too. Several players viewed his two early failed replay challenges on catches by Julio Jones against rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander as Philbin showing his support for his players.

“I pulled Jaire to the side and I said, ‘He's really going to bat for you right now,’” said cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who returned an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter. “Both challenges in the first half, a lot of coaches don't really do that. Not ticky-tacky calls like that. But he showed that he's really going to ride with us.”

Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that the Packers looked inspired on Sunday; that’s not unusual after an in-season coaching change. Their offense was more productive, especially on third down. Rodgers went 5-of-6 passing for 70 yards and a touchdown on third down, and he also scrambled twice for 23 yards and a pair of first downs. In his previous six games, Rodgers completed 44 percent of his third-down passes with one touchdown and two rushing first downs, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.

What’s more, just about everything that could have helped the Packers and their faint playoff chances -- which following Sunday's victory were at 4.8 percent, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index -- went in their favor: Carolina, Washington, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia all lost.

When asked about the Packers apparently still being in the postseason mix, Rodgers said: “There’s no apparent about it. It’s the truth. We’ve got a lot of help the last week and then in the early games today all three teams that needed to lose, lost.

“I think the interesting thing is we didn’t talk about it at all. I don’t know if guys were resigned to not thinking that there’s a chance or it’s just everything that was going on and nobody even mentioned it at all. I mentioned it briefly before the game, but yeah, we’re not out of it.”

And apparently they’re not done fighting for it, either.

“I’m not sure how the playoff thing is coming out,” Clay Matthews said. “But for the most part, you can say we don’t have a very good chance. But to come in here and kind of take control of that and still have that effort and energy that we showed today, I think it’s real important for a head coach, and obviously with what Joe did this past week.”