Thursday, December 28, 2006

Forget the Playoffs; There's More At Stake

On Sunday night, the Green Bay Packers take on their most storied rival, the Chicago Bears, in a season finale that has suddenly become important to Packer fans.

It has also, apparently, become important to the NFL, who moved the game to the evening as a part of their 'flex' scheduling, interrupting the New Year's Eve celebration plans of nearly every football fan in the Midwest.

Why so important? Well, many will point to the long-standing rivalry between the Bears and Packers. Why have a Thursday night game between the Packers and Vikings? Others will point to Brett Favre and the potential of his last game played. Probably some interest in that, but that’s not what has Packer Mundo all a-buzz.

Yes, after a stretch of three wins, the Green Bay Packers are standing on the verge of making the playoffs. You heard it right, there is a mathematical possibility that the Pack could get the bottom seed in the NFC if things work out right. Folks with unused statistics degrees across the nation are plotting every possible permutation of results to see which ways the Packers can sneak in.

But, pretty much all of them would depend on one thing: the Green Bay Packers (7-8) must beat the 13-2 Chicago Bears.

I say, forget about it. The playoffs aren’t important. Seriously.

If the Packers make it, great. We have another week to watch them. Perhaps some of us will make a pilgrimage to New Orleans or Seattle or wherever the Packers would end up playing.

But it’s not the point of the game this Sunday night. Heavens knows, the Packers will know whether or not the win will get them in or out of the playoffs before the game even starts. There’s a strong likelihood that the Packers will suit up for the game, and have the knowledge that Carolina is already the sixth seed, win or lose.

The dependence on other factors besides controlling your own destiny is a bit distracting. Some 'what has to happen' lists look like a parlay card for the entire week’s schedule. Some permutations depend on Pluto being readmitted as a planet before the end of the game in order for the Packers to make it.

Don’t buy into it. If the Packers make it, they make it. There are more important issues at stake in this game.

The Packers are 7-3 this season against teams with losing records. However, they are 0-5 against teams with winning records, and have been outscored 160-60 in those games, an average score of 32-12.

Giving the Packers their due, they have shown themselves worthy of being considered 'mediocre' this season: they’ve beaten many of the teams that they should have beaten. When you consider that they’ve only played five teams with winning records, they SHOULD have seven wins out of ten against losing teams..

The Packers are running on a sugar high, too. The last three games have produced victories, despite not playing at their top level across the board. The teams, San Francisco, Detroit, and Minnesota, are all dealing with their own problems, and many of them are internal. The Lions and Vikings, in particular, looked as though they just want the season to end.

A win is a win, but the Packers haven’t looked good doing it. A critic might suggest the Packers haven’t won those games, but instead 'lost the least'.

Which is why this game is so critical. Momentum for next season is actually on the upswing, that despite all the problems and growing pains with a new coaching staff and offensive schemes, many Packer fans are starting to believe in the direction provided by Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy.

In the first meeting between the Packers and the Bears this season, in Week 1, the Bears simply manhandled them, crushing them 26-0 in Brett Favre’s first career shutout. It wouldn’t be his last, as the Packers went on to go scoreless against Patriots in Week 11, too.

The Packers have two teams they need to worry about. And no, it’s not the Redskins, or the Giants, or the Vikings, or the Rams. Or Pluto.

They need to worry about the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. Whether or not they have a fighting chance for a playoff spot at kickoff, the Packers have to prove themselves capable of standing toe-to-toe with a formidable opponent.

Don’t count on the Bears to roll over and play dead for the Packers, either. Last season, Bears coach Lovie Smith rested many of his starters in the final game against the Vikings, as they had clinched the second seed and a first round bye. The result was a season finale loss and a divisional playoff loss to Carolina on their home field. Mike Holmgren might be willing to make that mistake again, but I don’t think Smith will.

There’s a whole week in between for little injuries to be rehabbed. Lovie Smith knows how important momentum is, and we all know how continued early exits from the playoffs can affect the job security of even the most accomplished coaches.

This is the challenge for the young Green Bay Packers, a team that needs to worry about working as a team and executing in all facets of the game. The Bears are another benchmark for the mediocre Packers to test themselves against: a playoff team, like the Saints, Patriots, and Seahawks, all of whom dismantled the Packers in earlier games.

The Packers may need a win to make the playoffs, but they don’t need a win to establish momentum for next season. This team has to show heart in front of a national television audience. They need to execute on both sides of the ball, as well as special teams. Playcalling must improve from the sidelines, and the players have to eliminate the foolish mental mistakes that have plagued them this season.

If the Packers can put up a good fight and make the Bears truly have to beat them in order to win the game, it may go into the record book as an L, but the Packers will have shown they are ready to make a step forward next season. Obviously, to actually win the game would be even better, with the given that the Bears are playing to win, not to not get hurt.

The Packers have something much more important riding on this game other than a playoff spot. They have pride, heart, and a need to prove they are more than just the better basement team in the NFC North.

The Bears are a perfect measuring stick to give that final grade to the Packers. After this game they could be a 'team on the rise', or they could be 'the team that can only beat bad teams'.

Let’s hope this team is focused and knows who the opponent really is on Sunday night. And in order to beat the Bears, they have to first make sure not to beat themselves.

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