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Against all odds, Packers in playoff hunt

Published: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013 12:08 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP)
Packers quarterback Matt Flynn passes during Sunday's game against the Cowboys in Arlington, Texas. Flynn will start Sunday against the Steelers.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Packers are finishing strong at just the right time of year.

Two straight rousing, come-from-behind wins has Green Bay buzzing about playoff possibilities again. Two more victories, starting Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, would ensure another NFC North crown in Titletown.

The second halves of games had been troublesome at times this season. But then Green Bay's defense shut out Atlanta in the second half of a 22-21 win two weekends ago. Then the Packers (7-6-1) went on a 34-10 binge after halftime to take advantage of Dallas' meltdown in a 37-36 victory last week.

Even coach Mike McCarthy seems pleasantly puzzled by the turnaround.

"If I knew that, I'd get it done in the early part of the game," McCarthy said this week. "I don't have an answer for you there."

The goal every week is to play four good quarters. But at the least, McCarthy is getting the desired result, even if he's first had to endure a couple stomach-churning first halves.

Against the Cowboys, backup quarterback Matt Flynn led Green Bay to touchdowns on the first five possessions of the second half. Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams came up with crucial interceptions in the game's waning minutes to help finish off a memorable rally from a 23-point halftime deficit.

"A lot of it is resolve, and creating a mindset that you're going to finish, and you're going to focus in a little bit more in that part of the game," secondary coach Darren Perry said Friday. "I think that focus is heightened a little bit, and then we've just been opportunistic. Guys doing their jobs and not having the critical breakdowns in the end."

This is happening without franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers, out since fracturing his left collarbone during the first series of a 27-20 loss to the Bears on Nov. 4. He'll miss the Steelers game after officially being ruled out Friday, leaving Flynn to start again.

Things would be easier with Rodgers back, though Green Bay's confidence is growing having to play without him.

"I think we're very confident, especially after what we did in the second half in Dallas, scoring that many points in a half," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "We know Matt can make plays ... If we do our part, the defense is going to be fine."

In an injury-filled year, a few backups like Flynn have stepped up down the stretch to fill voids. Andrew Quarless has caught touchdowns in two straight games, making the tight end position a factor again in the passing game for the first time since Jermichael Finley went down with a season-ending neck injury in October.

"He's a big-bodied guy, good hands," Flynn said about the 6-foot-4 Quarless this week. "I feel like he's improved in his route-running since I was here. Just a guy that has stepped up when he needed to."

Goal No. 1 is to beat the Steelers. A victory ensures a winner-take-all showdown for the division with the Bears the following week.

Sunday's game may have added meaning for Packers coaches with ties to the Steelers organization or western Pennsylvania. Among them, McCarthy grew up in Pittsburgh and once served as an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh. Offensive coordinator Tom Clements was a Steelers quarterbacks coach.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers had the same job for the Steelers in the early 1990s. Linebackers coach Kevin Greene and Perry each played in Pittsburgh. It's the first meeting between the model NFL franchises since Green Bay beat Pittsburgh 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV in 2011.

"These are two of the finest organizations in all of football. To have the pleasure of working with both of them is really a blessing," Perry said with a smile.

Those ties won't make a difference once the ball kicks off. Late in the year, with the playoffs within sight, the Packers want to finish strong.

"It's just about us going out there and executing on Sunday," safety M.D. Jennings said. "Taking advantage of things when we have the opportunity."

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