When the Packers were eliminated from playoff contention last weekend, a collective "Pfffftttt" erupted from the multitude of Packer fans who heard coach Mike McCarthy announce he was turning his attention to winning the game next Monday night against the Bears. "Why bother?" some of us thought.
In McCarthy's own words, “It's important for us to go down and win this game. We talk about the importance of division games, and this is a big one. That part has not changed. We know they are fired up to play us and trust me, it will be a physical game, and we'll be ready to go when we step out there Monday night.”
When you have nothing else to play for, what's left? Pride? Draft position? Incentives based on your individual stats? It's easy to take this as lip service, and look forward to another late-game collapse against our historic rival.
But wait a minute. This game is big, at least for McCarthy.
Let's be honest. There are a number of fans out there who have taken sides on Thompson and McCarthy, Rodgers and Favre, or are at least acutely aware of the debates and friction surrounding them. The resounding "Less Filling, Tastes Great" back-and-forth among fans is a direct result of the disappointment the 2008 season has been.
But, there are still a strong contingent of Packer fans out there for whom a win against the Bears puts all right with the world. True, many of them are probably older, who can remember a time long before names like Holmgren and Reggie dominated the Packer headlines. These folks not only remember the painful 1980's watching George Cumby getting demolished by William "The Refrigerator" Perry, but also the infamous Chester Marcol game in which a blocked field goal is picked up and ran in for a winning touchdown (incidentally, my first Packer game).
But even moreso, there are fans who remember Dick Butkus spitting on Ray Nitschke, and Geroge Halas glaring across the sideline at Packer coaches like Lombardi and Lambeau. A long, storied, and hated rivalry that transcends the coach, GM, or quarterback of the day.
I still smile remembering the yarns told by Mike Holmgren when he took his position as Packer head coach, and how the little old ladies would stop him in the supermarket, give him a discerning evaluation of how bad the Packers had been lately, and tell him, if he couldn't manage to do anything else, "you better beat those Bears."
I am still blessed to have a 90+ year old grandmother who is one of those little old ladies, who would distribute her Packer season tickets to her children and grandchildren every year...all except the Bear game. She never missed it.
With a 1-6 record in their last seven games, the Packers are on a slide we haven't seen in a long time (okay, 2005). As frustration increases, so does the pressure on McCarthy and, in particular, several of his coordinators and assistant coaches.
Bob Sanders is pretty much officially being thrown in front of the train McCarthy announced was leaving the station this summer.
Let's not misunderstand the importance of this game, then, to McCarthy and this team. In 2006, we saw a 4-8 team go on a four-game win streak at the end of the season that silenced the rabble and gave a lot of hope for 2007. Obviously, this is a much different team in a much different situation, as the expectations from a 13-3 season are much higher than coming off a 4-12 season. But McCarthy would love nothing more than to complete this season with a couple of wins, go 7-9 and at least finish on a strong enough note that restores some of the collective confidence of Packer Nation.
And, there is no greater moral victory than a sweep of the Bears in a season, especially when moral victories are all you can scrape up. At one point, a rookie coach named Lovie Smith made it the top priority of the Bears to beat the division rival Packers. Now, the tables are turned.
The consequences of losing this game are monumental. A six-game losing streak, heading into the final game against the likely winless Lions? Even if the Packers win that game, it will still be empty, given the competition.
And what if the Packers go 0-2 to finish, with two final losses to two division rivals, including an humiliating loss to a team that no one should ever lose to, perhaps one of the worst teams in NFL history? This would finish off an 0-7 finish to the 2008 season, and the ferocity of the critics of McCarthy, Ted Thompson, and the other Packer coaches will be insatiable.
McCarthy has (finally) taken ownership of the direction this team has taken, stating, "I’m always trying to push the right buttons, and we’re 5-9 and my name is at the top of that. I take full responsibility for that. That’s the challenge… But I believe in our structure. I believe in the environment that has been created here."
This is a good step, in my opinion. McCarthy has seemed far more hands-off this season than in years past, and for this team to get back on track, he's going to have to get dirty with the men in the trenches again. That means getting dirt on himself, too.
But, it starts on Monday night...a "second season" of sorts. With the official season lost, the playoffs an impossiblity, this is a game that is more than just pride or playing spoiler. It is about rectifying the confidence of a team and their fans. And, for McCarthy and his staff, saving some face (if not some jobs).
McCarthy isn't kidding when he says that he's gearing up for this game against the Bears. As of right now, its probably the most important game of the offseason.