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Rodgers and Packers played for more than pride in Sunday’s return to MetLife Stadium

Aaron Rodgers insisted on playing against the Jets last season in a game that didn’t matter for playoff seeding. A year later, he tossed 4 TDs in New York in a game that keeps the Packers in the mix for a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.

Green Bay Packers v New York Giants
Aaron Rodgers lit up a helpless Giants secondary in 31-13 win.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

East Rutherford, NJ — Last year, a battered Green Bay Packers team with an interim head coach trekked to New Jersey with nothing on the line other than pride and left with a dramatic walk-off win. A year later, an 8-3 NFC contender made the trip to an icy, raw MetLife Stadium with a renewed sense of purpose, leaving with a 31-13 win over the hapless Giants.

After a brutalizing loss at the hands of the 49ers on the road a week ago, Matt LaFleur became the second Packers coach in just over a year to attempt to restore green and gold pride in the Big Apple. For a team who is a near lock to make the playoffs, buoying his team’s confidence loomed every bit as large and keeping pace with the other top NFC contenders.

“I don’t think these guys ever lost confidence to be honest with you,” LaFleur said after the win.

“I think we had a bad performance and you’re only as good as your last performance in this league. I don’t think these guys wavered at all. I think they just got back to work and ignored the noise.”

Swagger never wanting on this 2019 Packers, it follows players like Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith and of course Aaron Rodgers can keep spirits high despite an otherwise dispiriting loss. That said, a flat performance against a Giants team coming in on a seven-game losing streak would raise eyebrows at the very least. LaFleur, ever the even-keeled demeanor, preaches consistency.

“Each and every week is going to be a challenge and sometimes that stuff happens. Hopefully we learn from it and are better for it in the long-term.”

One could dismiss such coaching cliches as banal to the point of meaninglessness, but the players don’t see it that way. A 44-38 win over the Jets in New York last year provides an example of why teams value, or at least attempt to mine it, from any possible situation.

“That’s why I wanted to play last year,” Rodgers said of the Jets game.

“A lot of people were questioning ‘What are you playing for’ and it’s pride ... I think there’s a lot of different ways you can motivate yourself or take inspiration from certain things. Last year was playing for Joe [Philbin] because of how much we love Joe and what he meant to our team.”

It might not matter to fans or the media, but it matters to the players. Keep fighting, show pride, play for each other. They’re cliches for a reason. Showing that want-to in a meaningless December game with an interim head coach can set the stage for an enormous contest (to keep pace with NFC contenders) with a first-year head coach a year later. There’s also some delicious symmetry in LaFleur tying a first-year head coaching wins record for the Packers in the same spot they fought so hard last year for Philbin.

“That being said, this is a lot more fun when you’re playing meaningful games in December,” Rodgers quipped.

More fun, but also infinitely more important. The Jets win didn’t count toward anything, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t matter. Rodgers has elevated his leadership even further in the last year, and the Packers are relying on young players like Jaire Alexander and Aaron Jones to star for them this season. Winning is a culture, it’s a mindset. Failing to prioritize it can have disastrous consequences even once a team has the talent to compete.

Witness the clown show in Cleveland.

“This year, we’re playing for something collectively that’s pretty special and this was a step in the right direction,” Rodgers said, another in a long line of allusions this season from the quarterback about this being a Super Bowl-caliber team.

Rodgers didn’t waver in his post-game comments in San Francisco. Neither did LaFleur. Maybe it was just lip service. Maybe the Packers beat up a dog team, broke their will, took advantages of killer mistakes and it has nothing to do with their ability to move on, re-focus and play with intensity.

Or maybe the institutional strength of the Packers, forged in a short time and led by quarterback and head coach, keep this team from straying from the path. Rodgers tossed four touchdowns and posted a 125.4 passer rating a week after one of the worst performances of his career.

Rather than trying to invent from whole cloth a new identity, LaFleur and the Packers returned to doing what they’ve done when they’re at their best: play with balance, dial up big plays on offense, and create enough havoc on defense with pressure and turnovers to win. Instead of playing outside themselves to remove the acrid taste of the 49ers game, this Green Bay became more itself, relaying a self-belief in their own plan, culture and identity.

Last year in New York ... the Packers don’t care about last year anymore. They were searching, seemingly helplessly for way forward, for an identity. This year, they’re 3-0 coming off losses with a combined point differential of +36, including two road wins by double-digits.

When this team faces adversity, it doesn’t turtle, it takes the lead of its quarterback playing a meaningless Week 16 game and plays with pride and a self-assuredness that belies the young and inexperience on much of this team. They’re a win away from the team’s first 10-win season since 2016, a year in which the Run The Table Packers likewise refused to knuckle under and give in into the pitfalls of adversity.

None of this assures a Super Bowl run, but it represents an encouraging, paradigmatic cultural shift under a new regime and a team restocked with leaders thanks to the work done by Brian Gutekunst and the front office this offseason. Mike McCarthy called it stacking success. A team can stack failure too, a road down which no team hopes to go. The resiliency the Packers have shown this season points to a team capable of shaking off losses, staying patient, and steeling themselves to regain focus.

If they keep playing like this, there may not be much more adversity to overcome, or losses from which they’ll have to bounce back. They’ll be playing for a different type of pride, the kind that comes from chasing the Lombardi Trophy.