GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Before Eddie Lacy was breaking tackles, long before he set the Green Bay Packers' rookie rushing record, he was a nervous rookie playing in his first NFL game.
At San Francisco, Lacy was hesitant, had a costly fumble and was benched. Coach Mike McCarthy called it a "horrendous start."
Welcome to the bigs, kid.
Quickly, Lacy adjusted to the pro game, and now he's a top candidate for offensive rookie of the year. Lacy is one of many players with a chance at redemption in this wild card match-up.
"That was Eddie's first game," McCarthy said Monday. "He admittedly was very nervous for the game. So, yeah, Eddie's playing much, just like any rookie in this league, he's got 16 games under his belt now.
"He knows what to expect, and he's comfortable in the offense, he's comfortable being asked what to do, so yeah Eddie is in a different place today."
Lacy rebounded late against the 49ers to finish with 41 yards on 14 carries. He had a first half to forget.
Lacy gained 1 yard on his first carry in that 34-28 Packers' loss. On his second carry, Ray McDonald slipped through to bring Lacy down for a loss of 3 yards. On Lacy's third carry, a pulling Josh Sitton missed Patrick Willis, and the back gained a yard.
And on his fifth carry, Lacy fumbled at Green Bay's 14. Getting dragged down, Lacy held the ball out and San Francisco took a 14-7 lead.
Lacy hasn't fumbled on his 279 carries since. Despite fighting for extra yardage practically every carry, he has been secure with the football -- one major reason the Packers keep feeding him. Even through an ankle injury that's dogged Lacy all month, he's been the focal point.
Lacy came out of Sunday's win at Chicago "much better" than he did against Pittsburgh, McCarthy said. This marked another gritty effort by the rookie on his popped tire.
Saying he has pain in the ankle and the top of his right foot, Lacy ran left often in Chicago. He was close enough to full strength to muster 66 yards on 21 attempts with a touchdown. In the fourth quarter -- when the middle of the field was flooded with defenders -- Lacy bounced left to the pylon. His 6-yard touchdown drew Green Bay to 28-27.
"We're fighters," Lacy said after the 33-27 win. "Every game may not go the way it's supposed to, the way we envision it going, but we never give up. We showed a lot of fight and a lot of heart."
Who knows how long Lacy will be able to run this hard, this often, but he has carried the ball 284 times this season. Lacy eclipsed 20 carries in 10 games.
It all began with the wake-up call in San Francisco.
One of the best: Through his time with Joe Montana in Kansas City, Brett Favre in Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers' development, McCarthy said Monday that Green Bay's game-winning touchdown drive on Sunday topped them all.
"I was in Kansas City, I think it was '94, when Montana on 'Monday Night Football' up in Denver, John Elway, it was a great classic game," McCarthy said. "We went down the field in the 2-minute drill to win the game. But this was for all the marbles, Aaron hadn't played in eight weeks. They were aggressive with their game plan.
"This was clearly, you know it feels good today because it just happened yesterday, but it's the finest one I've ever been a part of."
To recap, the Packers converted three fourth downs along a 15-play, 87-yard drive to beat the Bears, 33-28, at Soldier Field.
On the first fourth and 1, McCarthy was originally going to punt and his players convinced him to go for it during the measurement. The Packers had one timeout left. From his own 22-yard line, McCarthy rolled the dice.
"I'll be honest with you, the first timeout really did it for me," McCarthy said. "Hey, trust me, players are excited. Those are emotional decisions by the players, and that's important, because you do want your players to grab onto it and take it and make them part of it, because ultimately they're the ones doing it. I love the fact that they wanted to go for it. I think in my earlier days I would've said, 'Hell yeah, let's go for it every time on fourth and 1.' But you've got to mature through that part of it.
"They were right. It was only one timeout in that situation and playing the high side of playing defense there was probably not the best choice. I think ultimately I may have regretted that decision if I would've punted."
Probably. Soon after, Rodgers found Randall Cobb for a 48-yard touchdown.
Matthews out: To no one's surprise, the Packers do not expect outside linebacker Clay Matthews to play the week after his second thumb surgery. But McCarthy would not rule out his star linebacker for the season quite yet.
"You're always cautious with players after surgery," McCarthy said. "That's why he didn't travel with the team."
For now, he'll remain on the 53-man roster.
"Right now he's out for this week," McCarthy said, "and that's really what we're focused on."
Inside, the Packers were surprisingly without Brad Jones in Sunday's win at Chicago. He was listed as probable with an ankle injury. The team "just didn't think Brad was ready," McCarthy said.
Defense of the defense: All hands may be on deck offensively, as Cobb announced to the world via social media, but they aren't on defense.
The Packers finished the regular season with the NFL's 25th-ranked defense, giving up 372.2 yards per game. The unit forced 22 turnovers, far below the average of 33.3 under Dom Capers in Green Bay. Opposing quarterbacks posted a 95.9 passer rating against Green Bay for the season.
Even with Rodgers and Cobb back, it might be difficult for the offense to overcome the defense.
At the podium, McCarthy threw his support behind the beleaguered "D."
"I love our defense. I love our football team," McCarthy said. "Throw the stats out the window. We could sit here and roll around in that stuff all you want. You can throw the bad ones at me and I'll throw the good ones back at you."
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