While not mathematically eliminated from postseason play, the Green Bay Packers are playing for pride on Sunday when they host the Atlanta Falcons.
These two teams with Super Bowl aspirations in training camp, and are two years removed from playing each other in the NFC Championship game. The Falcons are 4-8, the Packers 4-7-1. Not exactly the 100th season the franchise or Packers fanbase expected.
“I’m old school,” said Mike Ditka, former Chicago Bears head coach. “You play until the end, you fight, it’s a thing called pride. A playoff spot is a long, long shot, but you are a professional and you play as hard as you can. I think the Green Bay Packers will go out on that field Sunday and play their best.”
It’s been an eventful week for the Packers since the abrupt firing of head coach Mike McCarthy following an ugly loss to the lowly Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field.
Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin was named by president Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst. Associate head coach and inside linebacker coach Winston Moss was released after a critical tweet. McCarthy was allowed to address the team for a final time on Thursday.
“I’ve always had great respect for Mike McCarthy as a football coach and person,” Ditka said. “The Packers made the decision to go in a different direction. Mike did a lot for the Packers. He and players became family. It was a great thing he could say goodbye. That was very classy of Mike and the Packers organization. Believe me, the players appreciated that.”
Ditka knows well what it like to be fired. He was released by the Bears in 1992 after 11 seasons and terminated by the Saints in 1999 after three seasons in New Orleans.
“The greatest thrill of my life was coaching the Chicago Bears,” Ditka said. “We had success, but it didn’t work out (long term). And I’m OK with that. I got to fulfill my lifetime dream. In the NFL, head coaches don’t last forever and many times it doesn’t end pretty. I think there’s a lot more football left in Mike McCarthy. I wish him only the best.”
Sunday’s game will feature two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan and two elite receivers in Davante Adams and Julio Jones, who has been hampered by a foot injury.
Green Bay averages 23 points a game and yield nearly 24. Atlanta’s offense produces 24 points per contest and given up nearly 28 points per game. Rodgers and the Packers inconsistent offense, which has struggled to convert on third down and finish in the red zone, will now have Philbin doing the play-calling.
It will be interesting to see how the Green Bay quarterback and the offensive unit responds to a new approach.
“We’re not going to make sweeping, structural changes,” the 57-year-old Philbin said. “It’s not like we’re going to fly some magical players or magic coaches in here in the next four weeks. We’ve got a good group of men, we’ve got a good staff, we have to get these guys to play better and we have to make some plays.
“We have to help each other out and play more complementary football. We just haven’t had a lot of momentum to sustain itself over a period of time. . . we have to play sounder, better football. We’ve got to step up and make plays.”
The Falcons’ defense has been inconsistent and gives up an average of 130 yards rushing and 263 passing per game. It may well be a high-scoring affair at Lambeau Field.
“We’ll see who wants it the most,” Ditka said. “Simple as that.”
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