GREEN BAY, Wis. — Snow was starting to fall on a Sunday night in January, and as the two teams clashed for a spot in a championship game, with bright light bursting from the hulking, metal bowl on the western edge of the city, it was hard not to feel as though old times had returned to historic Lambeau Field.
And yet the Green Bay Packers team that came away with the victory to advance to the NFC title game was far different from the ones responsible for the franchise's storied history. It had needed a transformation to get here. A year ago, with the Packers coming off their worst season in a decade, onlookers had determined they had become outdated, that the game had passed them by. The league's spotlight instead centered on the Los Angeles Rams and Sean McVay, the coach leading an offensive revolution drawing on principles from the high school and college ranks.
The Packers recognized they needed radical change, so they replaced Mike McCarthy, whom they had fired during the season, with a former McVay assistant, Matt LaFleur - the first of several key changes to stride into football's modern era. Just one year later, they find themselves one win from the Super Bowl.
"They realized the clock was ticking on Aaron Rodgers," ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. "The window to win championships can close very quickly . . . so they're creating a new one for the next three, four, five years."
The revamp transformed the organization from top (roster construction) to bottom (play-calling). It helped the Packers uphold Green Bay's most sacred custom, winning, and surge back into the playoffs for the first time in three years. Many analysts pointed out the Packers weren't as good as their 13-3 record, but the team embraced the perceived slights. Rodgers, the 36-year-old superstar quarterback, maintained that the Packers were happy to keep "winning ugly," as they have all season. They need to do so once more - on Sunday at the San Francisco 49ers - for a trip to the franchise's sixth Super Bowl.
The players aren't surprised. They noticed LaFleur steering the franchise from the past to the present right away. The then-39-year-old called veterans soon after he was hired as a sign of respect. He seemed like "a young soul," said cornerback Tramon Williams, and he shared their taste in music. He replaced posters of older Packers Hall of Fame players around the facility with current members of the team.
"No matter how much you don't want to [change], you have to," Williams said. "We understand that we have a great history, a unique history. . . . You can talk about the history all day long, but . . . we can't let that put us in a stale moment. We have to move forward."
After hiring LaFleur, the organization affirmed its commitment to a modern approach by exploring new ways to improve the roster. Under longtime general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers had always preferred to draft and develop their own players, earning a reputation for avoiding free agency completely. But in his second offseason, GM Brian Gutekunst understood his team needed to try another way, and he made a series of bold moves that would change the course of the team's season.
He zeroed in on defense, believing the unit had struggled in 2018 more because of its players than defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and Pettine became one of a few holdovers from McCarthy's tenure. The Packers doled out $154 million in free agent contracts to safety Adrian Amos and linebackers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith, then used two first-round draft picks on another pass-rusher, Rashan Gary, and a safety, Darnell Savage.
The Smiths were the biggest gambles. Za'Darius had never played a role this large, and Preston had never produced this much. Yet Pettine schemed them into favorable matchups, and the pair became the first in team history to each produce 12 or more sacks in a season (25.5 total).
Those signings, considered by some at the time to be overpays, turned out to be "the best moves in the NFL this past offseason," Bowen said. "You need to rush the passer," he added. "If you can't do that, you're going nowhere."
The new-look defense worked in concert with a remade offense. LaFleur blended old-school tactics (establishing the run) with new-school ideas (presnap motion, aggressive play-calls on second and short). Observers wondered whether Rodgers would buck the system and revert to the hero-ball once necessary for him to lead the Packers to victory. Rumors that he and LaFleur weren't getting along, circulating since the offseason, ignited in Week 2 when the two argued on the sideline during a win. But the Packers kept winning, and the system kept working.
"It was going to take time," Rodgers told the Wisconsin State Journal after a Week 7 game in which the team equaled its 2018 win total (six). "I didn't put any pressure on our relationship. . . . I just wanted for it to be a natural progression, built on trust and communication."
The newfound offensive balance forced opposing coaches to respect the Packers' running game, particularly dual-threat back Aaron Jones, which kept defenses unsteady. That prolonged drives, which rested their own defense.
"Aaron Jones . . . made them so well-balanced and difficult to deal with," Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll told reporters last week, before Green Bay knocked his team out of the playoffs with Sunday's 28-23 victory. "That's what's different."
The Seahawks limited Jones (62 yards) in their divisional-round game, but the Packers pounded the ball with him anyway (21 carries) and built a lead. When they needed a stop to stave off a potential comeback by Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, each of the Smiths made a key play to force the Seahawks off the field, and Rodgers sealed the win with two crucial third-down conversions.
This was not the type of team Packers fans were used to seeing, and it was not the way they were used to winning. But then delirious cheering climbed from the first row to the nosebleeds until the energy overflowed Lambeau, and the Packers were on the verge of a Super Bowl berth. No one seemed to mind how they had gotten there.