Donald Driver turns 36 four days before the Super Bowl.
Chad Clifton is 34. So is Charles Woodson.
Forgive me for the stereotype, but women are renowned for not wanting to talk about their age. Well, it’s not a whole lot different for a professional athlete.
“Yeah, you know, you didn't have to point that out,” Woodson said when, with NFL Network covering the press conference live, I observed that he no longer was 25.
“What are you trying to say?” Driver said at his locker, managing to sound defiant while wearing his trademark smile.
What I was trying to say was obvious: For three of the Packers’ proud and productive veterans, this could be it. It took the Packers three years to return to this stage, the NFC Championship Game. That’s pretty good in the grand scheme of things. There’s no guarantee they will get this opportunity again next year. Or in two years. Or in five years.
Clifton’s knees aren’t going to feel any better next year.
Driver’s not going to get any quicker next year.
Woodson isn’t going to cover any better next year.
This is it.
The time is now.
“You really have an understanding now of how hard it is to get to this game,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I know my first year in the NFL in 1993 (with Kansas City), we went to the AFC Championship Game, and you kind of think, ‘Boy, this is great. This is not that big of a deal.’ But it’s such a hard game to get to. Just the urgency, the messaging from the veteran players to the younger players, I really like the pulse of our team, the energy of practice. They’re just really into it. It starts with the guys like Donald, Charles Woodson. You have conversations with those guys, and they know how important it is to get this opportunity accomplished, because you don’t know when it’s going to happen again.”
Woodson, in his 13th season, has played in one Super Bowl, when Oakland lost to Tampa Bay following the 2002 season. He lost the conference championship game with the Raiders in the infamous “Tuck Rule” game in 2001 and with the Packers against the Giants in 2007. He is driven — maybe possessed — by a singular goal of winning the Super Bowl.
“Man, you know, a great deal,” Woodson said about what this opportunity means. “For every player in the NFL, these are the moments that you play for, to have an opportunity. I've been there once, and it was an incredible experience. It's been a long time ago, though, now. The thing is, you never know when you'll get back. You never know if you'll get there. You never know if you'll win one. But to have the opportunity and to be one of the final teams trying to get to the Super Bowl, it means a lot.”
At least Woodson has been to a Super Bowl. Driver, in his 12th season, and Clifton, in his 11th, are still trying to get there. They experienced the heartbreak of a few years ago, when the Packers’ offense went into the deep freeze after Driver’s 90-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter.
Then came 2008, when the Packers finished 6-10 while in a post-Favre funk. Last year, the Packers felt like they had a Super Bowl team, only to lose a wild-card shootout at Arizona. This season seemed doomed, with injuries amounting to a league-high 91 games lost by preferred starters — including early-season injuries to key playmakers Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
But with four consecutive wins, Driver, Woodson and Clifton have another chance — maybe a final chance — to reach the sport’s ultimate game.
“We’re close. We’re close to our ultimate goal,” Clifton said after Saturday’s thrashing of Atlanta.
“I don’t think you ever doubt that you’re going to get here,” Driver said. “Is it hard to get here? Yes, but it’s a dream for everyone just to get here. Once you get here, you’ve got to make the best of it because there’s only one chance to get here. Now, we have an opportunity to win the whole thing and it’s right in front of us.”
A few lockers down, James Jones said the team’s other receivers — Greg Jennings is 27, Jones is 26 and Jordy Nelson and Brett Swain are 25 — have made it their mission to get Driver to the Super Bowl.
“I don’t know about that part but the guys know,” Driver said. “They’ve addressed it all this year as well as the previous years that our whole receiver group has been together, is that they want to get me to the Super Bowl. As bad as they want to get me to the Super Bowl, I want to get them to the Super Bowl. When it comes to their career, they don’t have to worry when they’re ever going to get there. So, if we can get there all together at one time, that’ll put a nice little icing on the cake.”
Driver entered this season with his sights set on breaking James Lofton’s franchise’s career record for receiving yardage. He fell short, due to some injuries, but getting a second crack at getting to a Super Bowl is far, far better.
“Hey, everything’s meant to be broken,” Driver said of falling 41 yards short of Lofton’s mark. “That’ll happen next year. It’s always been a dream of mine to get to the Super Bowl. It’s right in front of me right now, and I think everybody in this locker room believes that it’s right in front of us, and we’ve believed it since March. When most of the people doubted us, said we weren’t going to get into the postseason, I said before, once we got in, we were going to be dangerous. Right now, we’re a dangerous group.”
A dangerous group that’s four quarters from a chance at playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.
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