Packers linebacker Clay Matthews rises triumphantly after sacking Giants… (Ed Mulholland / US Presswire )
Clay Matthews' star power has captured the attention of both the NFL fan base and offensive coordinators, who've spent this season seeking to double-team the third-year Green Bay Packers linebacker from USC.
Matthews' sack and tackle numbers are down from last season, when he contributed 13.5 sacks and nearly four tackles a game for the Super Bowl champions. After Sunday's 46-16 victory over the Oakland Raiders, Matthews has six sacks and 38 tackles.
As the calendar turned to December in a big game last week, Matthews began asserting himself at critical times, intercepting a pass by New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and returning it for a touchdown, recording a sack and forcing a fumble.
Those contributions loomed large in propelling the Packers to a thrilling 38-35 victory that kept them unbeaten. The Raiders put up little resistance Sunday as the Packers rolled to 13-0, much to the continued enjoyment of the son of Cleveland Browns ironman linebacker Clay Matthews and nephew of NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews.
You've already won the Super Bowl last year. The team's attitude this year should be to top that with a perfect season. Are you guys buying into that?
"I don't think anyone around here is lobbying to lose. We set out every week with the will to win. Despite clinching the playoffs and the division last week, we planned to win the game and I can't see that changing after [now] clinching the [NFC's] top seed. Winning is what we shoot for each week. You have to be smart and see the bigger picture. We all know we can do something special, as long as it doesn't jeopardize winning the Super Bowl. We won it all last year after going 10-6 in the regular season. I can tell you this: No one remembers your record if you're a Super Bowl champion."
How much discussion on this subject is there in the locker room and by coaches?
"We're not even close, man. We're only [13-0]. We have to win next week. In time, that can be a discussion. Maybe at 15-0. We still have [three] good teams in front of us. I can tell you everyone on our team is ultra-competitive and wants to be part of something special. From a personal standpoint, I like winning and I believe the rest of the members of this team want to win."
There's a perception that the Packers' defense is the team's Achilles' heel. Is that accurate, or a result of one-sided victories leading to oh-by-the-way scores and non-critical yardage against you?
"We do need to improve. We've been a top-five defense for the last few years, and now we're 31st. There is room for improvement. But we are [13-0], and we've made some key plays when we've had to. We're so close to that great, elite level, it's all attainable. We want to reach that ceiling of greatness. Part of being on top — [13-0], defending Super Bowl champions — is people expect you to dominate in everything. If you don't, then people think, 'Maybe they're getting complacent.' It's the nature of the beast."
Are you satisfied with your contributions?
"That's for people like you and the critics to measure. I'm satisfied. You come in as a rookie just trying to make plays. Then you work to lead by example, let your voice be heard when it can. I come in every day and get my work done. Then you start creating plays, and three years in, people look at me as a leader. I feel I'm continuing to develop. I'm doing enough for us to win."
For the remainder of the regular season, will you set tangible goals such as limiting teams to a certain number of points or yards to prove your defense is sound heading into the playoffs?
"No. Winning cures all. It's not tangible goals as much as the overall performance and effort. It boils down to you, as a man, getting your own job done and being our best as a team."
What's been the best perk you've experienced from winning the Super Bowl? Keep it clean.
"Ha. That's an open-ended question. So much of it was about fulfilling a childhood dream. Your public image . . . you can't turn on the TV, it seems, without seeing [quarterback] Aaron [Rodgers], the Packers, myself. Doing charitable endeavors has been great. Getting into other [endorsement] business. And it's pretty amazing to be associated with such an elite group. It's all been exciting."
You have access to such a wealth of football knowledge with your family and former USC teammates. How often do you lean on that?
"Growing up, it helped me to transition to this lifestyle. My father and uncle had a combined 38 years in pro football. They'd tell me, 'It's a business, make plays when you're out there.' That helped me so much to understand the things that might overwhelm the incoming rookies. I appreciate that. The USC guys, I'm still in touch with Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, Mark Sanchez — the guys from my senior year. We don't talk often enough, but we're always chiming in with each other during the season, texting for big plays. We've had a great time."