GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — This wasn’t the typical formula for producing a title contender.
The Green Bay Packers followed up an 8-9 season by trading four-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets and letting plenty of other veterans walk away while assembling the league's youngest roster.
Green Bay has found a way to thrive in the postseason anyhow. The Packers (10-8) are the youngest team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to win a playoff game, at least according to one metric.
They’re eager to keep it going as they visit the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers (12-5) in an NFC divisional playoff game Saturday night.
“Our mindset is to win the Super Bowl,” said wide receiver Christian Watson, a 2022 second-round pick.
History suggested that was an unrealistic proposition.
The Elias Sports Bureau calculated the weighted age of each playoff roster since the AFL-NFL merger by factoring in how many games in which a player appeared. The Packers’ oldest player — 32-year-old offensive tackle David Bakhtiari — suited up for only one game before going on injured reserve.
Green Bay’s weighted age of 25.58 years made this the fourth-youngest playoff team, behind only the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals (25.22), 1970 Miami Dolphins (25.44) and 1974 Buffalo Bills (25.56).
None of those other three teams won a playoff game. The Packers stunned the Dallas Cowboys 48-32 in the wild-card round to earn their fourth straight victory while showing experience isn’t essential to playoff success.
“Obviously yeah, experience is huge in these situations, but I think we’re just confident in our whole team and what we got,” quarterback Jordan Love said. “And now it just comes down to execution, making the most of the plays we have, and I think that’s what we are doing.”
Six of the Packers’ 11 starters on offense Sunday were rookies or second-year pros. Fifteen of Love’s 16 completions went to rookies or second-year players. The only offensive starters older than 25 were running back Aaron Jones (29), left guard Elgton Jenkins (28) and right guard Jon Runyan Jr. (26).
That young offense went through some growing pains and failed to score a single first-half touchdown for a five-game stretch earlier this season. But the Packers have produced at least 33 points in three of their past four games and set a franchise playoff scoring record against the Cowboys, rewarding the faith they always had in themselves.
“I could see just the raw talent that these young kids have,” Runyan said. “I knew that at some point it was going to blossom. I was saying that early on in the season in the media, and people didn’t believe me, But it’s really starting to show its true colors now, and it’s really fun to watch.”
The Packers are the first team since the AFL-NFL merger to have four rookies catch at least 30 passes: Jayden Reed (64), Dontayvion Wicks (39) and tight ends Luke Musgrave (34) and Tucker Kraft (31). Reed had 64 catches for 793 yards and 10 total touchdowns (eight receiving, two rushing) in the regular season to lead the Packers in all three categories.
“Always when you give young guys opportunities, sometimes there’s some bumps in the road, which it sounds like they’ve gone through with this year a little bit,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “But you get through those. They find a way to win that last game and get in the playoffs, and now they’ve got a good team that you don’t look at it as a bunch of rookies. You look at guys almost in their second and third year, and they’re playing like it.”
Green Bay is more experienced on the other side of the ball but still had five rookie defenders — cornerback Carrington Valentine, outside linebacker Lukas Van Ness, linemen Karl Brooks and Colby Wooden and safety Anthony Johnson Jr. — playing more than 20 snaps against Dallas.
The Packers’ youth movement extended to special teams, as they drafted kicker Anders Carlson to take over for Mason Crosby, the franchise’s career leading scorer.
Green Bay’s path to the divisional playoffs didn’t go smoothly.
The Packers’ playoff hopes seemed faint after a four-game skid dropped their record to 2-5. Yet even after they sent starting cornerback Rasul Douglas to Buffalo at the trade deadline, they carefully avoided using the term “rebuilding” to describe their situation.
They instead showed how a team can get better even as it’s getting younger.
“Whether you’ve got a young team, a veteran team, it really doesn’t matter,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “All you’re trying to do is continue to get better each and every day and focus on what’s right in front of you. I think that’s where our focus has been — just trying to find different ways to push our guys.
“Our guys have shown up with a great mentality, mindset and willing to work. I think that’s why you’ve seen some progress from our football team.”
NOTES: CB Jaire Alexander didn’t practice Wednesday after an ankle injury knocked him out of the Cowboys game. “He’s doing better,” LaFleur said. “He’s just getting treatment, and hopefully we’ll see where he’s at tomorrow.” RB AJ Dillon (thumb/neck) and OLB Kingsley Enagbare (knee) also didn’t practice Wednesday. Dillon has missed Green Bay’s past two games, and Enagbare isn’t expected back this season.
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.
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