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Mike McCarthy set tone for Green Bay Packers' turnaround

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GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- Aaron Rodgers took the snap, stepped to his left and handed the ball to Ty Montgomery, a receiver-turned-running back in search of a single yard to convert a crucial fourth down. As a wall of Giants rebuffed and stuffed the helpless ball-carrier, and 77,549 frigid fans let out simultaneous groans of displeasure, America put Mike McCarthy on blast once again.

In sports bars, living rooms and all sorts of social-media platforms -- and yes, in the press box of the greatest and most storied pro football stadium in the land -- the Green Bay Packers' 11th-year coach was being roasted like a holiday turkey. How, fans wondered, could McCarthy be so reckless as to go for it from his own 42-yard-line with a 14-6 lead he was lucky to have midway through the third quarter of Sunday's playoff game against the New York Giants?

Many Packers fans might have felt like punching their hand through a wall.

And two plays later, when Eli Manning zipped a 41-yard touchdown pass to Tavarres King to cut the Packers' lead to one, the salty chatter only intensified: Why give back the momentum with the season on the line?

At that moment, Lambeau Field was ground zero for the bashing of a coach whose job security was called into question during a midseason swoon. It was hardly a surprising state of affairs: McCarthy, despite a standard of success that includes a Super Bowl XLV triumph, nine playoff appearances and a 114-61-1 regular-season record, is well aware that he is far from a fan favorite.

As he asked during an interview in his private locker room at Lambeau on Sunday night: "Why is America so tough on me, Michael?"

He was smiling as he posed the question, but it surely carried a strain of sincere exasperation -- one obviously eased by the 38-13 victory over the Giants that sent the fourth-seeded Packers into a divisional-round matchup next Sunday with the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas.

Not that McCarthy is claiming to be perfect. When it came to the topic of the Pack's failed fourth-down run -- well, if it makes America feel any better, the perpetrator himself may have been the biggest McCarthy-basher of all in its immediate aftermath.

"Oh, I was pissed off," McCarthy admitted. "Totally. That's just the way I'm wired. I feel responsible when things don't go well. I mean, my job's to orchestrate and keep our guys in healthy plays and create flow and rhythm for Aaron. That's the way I believe play-calling should operate. But there was too much risk there. I screwed it up."

Truth be told, however, McCarthy hasn't messed up much since the night of Nov. 20, when the Packers dropped to 4-6 after suffering a 42-20 Sunday night defeat at Washington. From that point on -- and, of course, thanks largely to a stupidly sublime quarterback who has since thrown 22 touchdown passes (including four on Sunday) and no interceptions -- Green Bay has gone on a red-hot run that evokes memories of its 2010 season, when it ripped through the playoffs as a sixth seed and roared to a championship.

If you want to crush him for his failings, you also have to give McCarthy his props for weathering adversity and keeping his players engaged and faithful. When I caught up with him in Nashville on Nov. 12, a day before the Packers would drop to 4-5 with a 47-25 defeat to the Tennessee Titans, he had every reason to succumb to the notion, at least in confidence, that this would probably not be the Packers' year.

Instead, he conceded nothing. And after returning home from the following week's defeat in Washington, with his players expecting to confront him at his most surly and shrill, McCarthy went counterintuitive and helped turn around a season.

"He honestly set the tone for us the day after the Washington game," Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang recalled following Sunday night's victory. "Being a player, I was kind of surprised by the way he approached it. You come off four straight losses and you come in with your tail tucked between your legs, expecting to be bitched out by your head coach.

"Instead, he came in and calmly said, 'Hey guys -- let's get to work. We've got a lot of things to fix.' He stayed positive, and it really set the tone. We understand that coaches get down, too, especially when they hear people say they're all getting fired and stuff like that. He did a really good job of keeping the room together and tuning out the noise."

Of course, there was one bit of noise that week which may have helped the Packers' cause: Rodgers' prescient proclamation that Green Bay "can run the table," the bookend to his legendary RELAX admonition of 2014.

"When Aaron said that, a lot of people were looking at us thinking, 'What are they drinking in here?'" Lang said. "Aaron's not a guy who usually makes statements like that in the media. He usually says them behind closed doors, in a meeting, but not to the world.

"For him to come out and say we could run the table, it was huge. A lot of guys needed to hear that. It gave us a lot of confidence. That, and Mike's measured approach and faith in us, really gave us the boost we needed."

On Sunday, the fifth-seeded Giants gave Rodgers and the Packers all they could handle for the first 27 minutes, harassing him with a pass rush that would produce five sacks on the day, and forcing him into incompletions on eight of his first 14 passes. To the Packers' credit -- and, perhaps, fortune -- they trailed only 6-0 when Green Bay regained possession after a Micah Hyde punt return to the New York 38 with 3:45 left in the first half.

Three plays later, Rodgers gave the Packers their first lead when, on second-and-goal from the 5, he slipped and slithered through the pocket for an uncomfortably long time, evading numerous defenders before zinging a perfect pass to well-covered wideout Davante Adams on the left side of the end zone. Star receiver Jordy Nelson had already left the game for good with a rib injury -- but unlike last year, when Nelson was sidelined by a torn ACL suffered during the preseason, Adams (five receptions, 125 yards), Randall Cobb (five receptions, 116 yards, three touchdowns) and Green Bay's other receivers stepped up and elevated their games in his absence.

The Giants, after regaining possession with 2:13 remaining, kept the ball on the ground -- and McCarthy proactively called timeout before the two-minute warning. His unwillingness to let New York bleed out the half paid off when the Pack got the ball back at its own 20 with 1:38 remaining and advanced it to the Giants' 42 with six seconds to go.

Five years ago in a divisional-round game at Lambeau, Manning connected with Hakeem Nicks on a 37-yard touchdown on the final play of the first half, helping to propel the Giants to a shocking upset. Manning, however, is not the Master of the Hail Mary. Nor is Makaveli, aka the late, great Tupac Shakur.

That title goes to Rodgers, who slid to his right and released a glorious rainbow that descended gently toward the back of the end zone -- and into the waiting arms of Cobb, who had somehow snuck behind four Giants defenders, including Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins.

As Rodgers told me later, perhaps only half-jokingly, as he walked through the locker room after the game, "It's become a high-percentage play for us."

It was the third time Rodgers has connected on such a play since December of 2015 -- four if you count the 61-yard, fourth-and-20 completion to Jeff Janis which preceded his incredible, 41-yard hookup with Janis to send last year's divisional-round playoff clash with the Arizona Cardinals to overtime.

I know some of you regard this as blasphemy, but this (not just the Hail Marys, but the whole thing) is Jordanesque, plain and simple.

So the Packers had reason to feel blessed as they led 14-6 midway through the third quarter, and they had every reason to stay conservative after fullback Aaron Ripkowski was stopped cold on third-and-1 from the Green Bay 42.

McCarthy, however, decided to put it on the line -- literally.

"It's playoff football, and we appreciate that mentality, man" left tackle David Bakhtiari told me afterward. "It's a testament to him -- he's showing that he's got our back, and we've got his back, too. I don't want him not to call our number next time. We need to hold up our end."

Rodgers, too, has been pleased with his coach's recent pattern of aggressive decision-making. "It's different," he said. Asked if he had any theories as to why that was so, the quarterback replied, "I don't know. I just know it's different, and I like it."

Though the failed handoff to Montgomery would turn out to be a risky move he would come to rue, McCarthy had his reasons. He and his assistants had made a slew of halftime adjustments that helped get receivers in space and softened up the Giants' pressure schemes, and he believed it was time to seize the moment.

"To be honest with you, I felt like the game was getting ready to change," he explained. "I felt like we could change the game there. I had two calls there (on fourth down), and I wish I would've gone with the second one. It was a solid play call, but they... but hey, he had a better defense called than I had a play called."

When the Giants scored two plays later, the pressure seemed to have shifted back to the Packers. Their rebuttal was swift and severe. The Pack needed just four plays to reach the end zone, with Rodgers finding Cobb in space for a 30-yard score, and ended their next three drives with a field goal, touchdown and touchdown, respectively.

The latter was set up by linebacker Clay Matthews' bizarre but brilliant strip sack of Manning and subsequent fumble recovery. With most players on both teams believing Matthews had merely forced an incompletion, the linebacker alertly raced toward the ball as Giants running back Paul Perkins casually bent down to pick it up at midfield. Matthews blasted the stunned Perkins during the scoop, jarred the ball free and dove onto it for the recovery at his own 45.

After being handed a copy of the Gamebook as he prepared to leave the locker room, Matthews looked at the official defensive stats and exclaimed, "Only one? I want two forced fumbles (for the same play)!"

By winning, Matthews and his teammates forced a rematch with the Cowboys, who defeated them 30-16 in a mid-October game at Lambeau. It will be a daunting test for the NFC North champions, but one thing is certain -- they won't approach it timidly.

For one thing, McCarthy need no longer worry about job security. But don't take it from me; take it from his boss, Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy.

"That was nonsense," Murphy told me, referring to the midseason talk that McCarthy could be fired after the season. "We've been through rough patches before, and we've always bounced back. Though, I have to admit, this one's a pretty remarkable turnaround."

Following the Packers' devastating defeat to the Seahawks in the 2014 NFC Championship Game, which featured a stunning fourth-quarter collapse, McCarthy did his share of soul-searching. In the wake of the sudden death of his brother, Joe, McCarthy decided to give up his role as the Pack's offensive play-caller, only to reclaim it when the team struggled late in the 2015 season.

He thought about Joe before Sunday's game ("I always do, especially this time of year," he told me), and he also thought about the rough patches he experienced professionally this past October and November -- but when it came time to coach, he was bold and unfettered and determined to get after it, consequences be damned. And if the sports fans of America weren't cool with that -- well, McCarthy was at peace with his approach.

"Why is America so tough on me?" McCarthy repeated just before leaving his private locker room. "I don't know. I think it's because I don't have a Twitter account."

That's the kind of joke a coach can make when the noise calling for his head has subsided into a whisper.

"It's all quiet now," Rodgers said. "It's real, real quiet."

And if the Cowboys are hearing footsteps? Well, that would be understandable.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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