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Packers must follow up a surprising season by dealing with heightened expectations

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur began the offseason with a message for a team that overcame inexperience to reach the divisional round of the playoffs.

The days of catching opponents by surprise are over.

“Just because we got to a certain spot doesn’t mean that’s guaranteed moving forward,” LaFleur said Monday at his season-ending news conference. “So what are we going to do to get better? And the expectation is that when they come back April 15th, they’re better than the team that left today, and that’s not just going to happen by chance.”

The Packers (10-9) were the youngest team to win a playoff game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau’s “weighted age” metric, which factors in how many games in which a player appeared.

They bounced back from a 1-5 start to sneak into the playoffs with the NFC’s No. 7 seed. They beat the second-seeded Dallas Cowboys 48-32 and led the top-seeded San Francisco 49ers most of the way before falling 24-21.

The Packers believe they’re ready to contend for years now that quarterback Jordan Love has shown he’s a worthy successor to four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers, who got traded to the New York Jets last April.

But they must prove they can handle heightened expectations.

“There’s going to be guys kind of patting us on our back and telling us the future’s bright and all that kind of stuff,” defensive lineman Kenny Clark said. “We’ve got to stick to that feeling of we were that seven seed working to get here. We’ve got to just keep putting in work, not getting too big-headed about what we did.”

STAFF ADJUSTMENTS

After the Packers missed the playoffs last year, LaFleur said at his season-ending news conference that he anticipated bringing back all his assistant coaches. He was noncommittal on that subject Monday.

“I want to certainly sit down with every assistant before any decisions are made,” LaFleur said.

The future of defensive coordinator Joe Barry has been a subject of speculation.

Green Bay’s defense struggled so much that LaFleur was asked at one point about the possibility of changing coordinators while the season was still underway, though the defense performed much better after Christmas.

LaFleur did say he hopes 70-year-old quarterbacks coach Tom Clements returns next season rather than retiring. LaFleur also said “I’m not close-minded to anything” regarding the possibility of handing over the play-calling responsibilities to an assistant.

BELIEVING IN LOVE

Green Bay’s playoff upset of the Cowboys capped a nine-game stretch in which Love threw 21 touchdown passes with only one interception, but the 49ers game showed he still has plenty to learn.

Love threw two second-half interceptions and acknowledged Saturday night that he committed a “mortal sin” on the final one by throwing into coverage across the middle of the field.

LaFleur said Monday that “I think he’ll be better for it in the long run.”

“A lot of players, when you get in a position, when you’re down, you try to make the big play,” LaFleur said. “You try to make it, but you can’t force it. And I think that’s kind of the lesson from that. Certainly there was nothing there, and sometimes the best play is a throwaway.”

KICKING CONCERNS

Anders Carlson missed a 41-yard field goal in the fourth quarter Saturday, punctuating a rookie season in which he went 4 of 9 from 40-49 yards out and missed six extra-point attempts.

LaFleur acknowledged Monday that he wants competition “at every position” – including kicker – but expressed regret about a comment that made it onto Fox’s game telecast.

Fox sideline reporter Tom Rinaldi noted that LaFleur “basically said, ‘When he goes out there, I just pray, guys.’" LaFleur said he meant it as a joke and that he was “extremely disappointed” about how that remark was portrayed. LaFleur said he has since spoken to Carlson about it.

“It’s a learning lesson for me,” LaFleur said.

ON THE LINE

One of Green Bay’s big offseason decisions involves the future of star left tackle David Bakhtiari, who played in just one game this season and has undergone five knee surgeries since tearing his ACL in December 2020.

Green Bay fared well with first-year starters Rasheed Walker at left tackle and Zach Tom at right tackle. The Packers also had Jon Runyan Jr. and Sean Rhyan rotating at right guard.

Runyan, a pending free agent, got emotional Monday as he discussed his four seasons in Green Bay.

“I don’t want to leave, but it’s not really in my hands,” he said.

Some other notable potential free agents include running back AJ Dillon, All-Pro kick returner Keisean Nixon and safeties Darnell Savage and Jonathan Owens.

HAMSTRUNG WATSON

Green Bay has reason to feel good about a receiving corps that consisted almost entirely of rookies and second-year pros this season.

That unit would get even better if its top deep threat could stay healthy. Christian Watson missed three games as a rookie and eight more this season because of hamstring injuries.

“I don’t want to let it consume my life, but everyone says your availability is your best ability, so I’ve got to find a way to stay out there,” Watson said. “I think I’m my best when I’m able to find my rhythm, find my groove and continue to build on it.”

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