GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Just after the Green Bay Packers players and staff gathered in the Lambeau Field locker room for the final team prayer of the preseason late Thursday night, head coach Mike McCarthy gave a parting message steeped in profound faith.
"I don't know if I've felt this good coming out of the preseason as I do tonight," said McCarthy, sharing the gist of his talk to the club after Green Bay's 34-14 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. "It's a group that has gotten better each and every week. I really like the mix from an experience standpoint -- the veterans and the young players."
As the three-time defending NFC North champions and armed with the talent to contend for the conference title and a spot in Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz., the Packers aren't preparing to navigate the upcoming season on a wing and a prayer. They lived that shaky scenario down the stretch of an injury-riddled 2013 season, getting leader Aaron Rodgers back in the nick of time to get back into the playoffs before bowing out right away.
When the football is kicked off for real again Thursday in prime time, Green Bay is aiming to be No. 1 again -- four seasons after its last Super Bowl victory. The Packers can make a big statement with their NFL brethren watching when they play the reigning league champions, the Seattle Seahawks, at CenturyLink Field.
"It should be interesting," said Ted Thompson, looking ahead to Green Bay's 10th season of football on his watch as general manager. "I like the makeup of the guys. I like the way they've been playing (in the preseason). It's a strange world, and you never know. This is one of my pat sayings, but I think if we play well I think we'll have a chance to win some games, and that's OK in the NFL."
A win-loss record in August for NFL teams is never taken seriously. Still, the Packers' 3-1 mark this preseason was indicative of a team poised to rack up the victories after its ragged 8-7-1 record last season, when Green Bay played without Rodgers for seven games because of a broken collarbone.
For what it's worth, the last time the Packers finished the preseason with a winning record -- 3-1 in 2011 -- they started the season with 13 straight victories and finished 15-1.
Three years ago also is when Rodgers, coming off his Super Bowl MVP-winning performance, set the league on fire with career-high passing numbers of 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 68.3.
Healthy again after last year's ordeal, Rodgers just may be the early front-runner for his second league MVP award. His precision and production in playing but eight series in only two of Green Bay's four preseason games this summer would suggest as much.
The numbers probably won't be as lofty as they were for him in 2011, just because Rodgers has Eddie Lacy with him in the backfield.
Lacy plowed his way to more than 1,250 rushing yards (counting the playoffs) last season as he stood out as the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year. Talk of him attaining 2,000 yards from scrimmage this season isn't far-fetched, considering Lacy is a legitimate three-down back with enhanced receiving skills.
Rodgers, however, insists the offense has maintained its pass-first identity as McCarthy, the innovative play caller, is hell-bent on ratcheting up the frequency of plays by going exclusively no-huddle.
"I think we're an up-tempo team," Rodgers said. "We might be able to be a little bit more balanced, but we're still going to attack people with our timing in the pass game and be able to do things in the run game that we haven't done maybe in the last four or five years. But, I've always felt like our short passing game is extended handoffs, and we're going to be slightly more pass than run."
A speed bump, though, could crop up at the outset of the season. The Packers had to abruptly turn to rookie Corey Linsley, a fifth-round draft pick, at center after new starter JC Tretter suffered a significant knee injury Aug. 22. Tretter is expected to miss at least the first month of play.
Rodgers, who didn't play the last preseason contest, will go into the season without having taken one snap from Linsley in a game.
"It's going to be a sped-up process obviously with Corey, getting him up to speed, but there's an expectation that when you're with the first team that you're going to play well and pick up where the other guy left off," Rodgers said. "The first start for Corey is going to be a tough environment (at Seattle's notoriously loud stadium). We expect him to play well."
The Packers' fortunes for repeating as division champions and making a deep run in January also will be dependent on how well their defense fares.
Longtime coordinator Dom Capers has the pieces in place for the tables to be turned after Green Bay struggled on the defensive side the past three seasons. Capers has a new pass-rushing combo of outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, the veteran all-star signed as a free agent in the offseason. The playmaking-challenged back end has been bolstered with converted cornerback Micah Hyde and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, this year's first-round draft pick, at safety to use in a variety of ways with holdover starter Morgan Burnett.
"I always have a positive outlook on our defense, but this year, especially when you look around at the guys, they kind of exude a certain type of energy and a certain prowess about them," said Matthews, back to ideal health again after missing six games last season because of a broken thumb.
"Everyone up and down the board, it just seems like a team that's been together for a while who really has something to prove, and I think you're going to see that," Matthews added. "I'm excited about that, I'm excited every year, but it's about proving it."
Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk, the dean of the defense in his ninth season, is cautiously optimistic about the unit being able to shed its dubious tag of being Green Bay's weakest link. The Packers go into the season with a big question mark up front after losing veteran nose tackle B.J. Raji to a season-ending torn bicep late in the preseason.
"You don't know until you actually get there," Hawk said of the readiness for the start of the season. "We're still going to be working obviously right up to the Seattle game to get there, to get to where we need to be."
NOTES: QB Aaron Rodgers, as expected, didn't play the final preseason game Thursday night, a 34-14 win over the visiting Kansas City Chiefs. With the Packers set to play the first game of the 2014 NFL schedule a week later at the reigning Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks, head coach Mike McCarthy held out 17 healthy starters from Thursday's game, including Rodgers, RB Eddie Lacy, WRs Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, OLBs Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers and all but one (rookie C Corey Linsley) of the five offensive linemen. ... TE Brandon Bostick isn't expected to be ready for next week's season opener. He missed the last two weeks of the preseason because of a broken fibula in his right leg and recently still was walking with crutches. ... DT Khyri Thornton sustained what appeared to be a significant hamstring injury in the first half of Thursday's preseason finale. Thornton, a third-round draft pick this year, had to be taken by cart to the locker room.