I'm probably in the extreme minority here, but I think the Packers need to go into Arizona on Sunday afternoon, keep their starters in the game until the end (unless it is a blowout like we had against the Seahawks), and start broadly experimenting with their schemes with the base personnel.
I've heard far more fans and experts say that, since we have a 6 out of 8 chance of replaying the exact same game a week later...in a game that "matters"...that the Packers should hold back. Hedge their bets. Our playoff spot is guaranteed, and there's nothing to be gained with a win. So why put your starters at risk in what is essentially a meaningless game and tip your hand for when it counts?
And, great points all. The perfect world, of course, would be to go in and play completely vanilla, remove the starters at halftime, and still come away with an emotional win that sends us into the playoffs geared up. And, had we been playing the Seahawks this week, I think we could get away with it.
You see, the Packers have demonstrated a knack for blowing out bad teams, and they've had plenty of practice. They have won five games against Really Bad Teams this year (Rams, Lions twice, Browns, and Seahawks), and won them by a margin of 175-42. Don't doubt for a second that the Packers live on momentum and can beat inferior talent. Then, of course, there was the loss at Tampa Bay, which drops that record against Really Bad Teams to 5-1.
They've also not fared too badly against Pretty Mediocre Teams, ones that are at or around .500 (Chicago twice, San Fran, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh). They Packers went 4-1 against those teams, the only black mark the one-point loss to the Steelers, otherwise outpacing those teams by a margin of 136-103. So, the Pack plays well against middling teams: teams that are/were struggling for wild-card berths, somewhat like themselves.
But here's where the problem is: the Packers have played only four games against Good Playoff Teams (Minnesota twice, Cincinnati, and Dallas), and have come up short in all but the Cowboy game. That's a 1-3 record against the caliber of team that the Packers will be facing in the playoffs as the likely fifth seed. In those games, the Packers got outscored by the competition 90-106, and most of us who watched them can attest to how the Packers were simply "taken out" early by the Bengals and the Vikings. They never got the momentum going.
Incidentally, you might be able to slide the Steelers into that "Good Playoff Team" category, despite their 8-7 record and scant chances for making the playoffs this year. Face it...those were the defending Super Bowl Champs and they played like it against the Packers. And, it looks even better to say that the Packers were undefeated against the Mediocres.
But, the point is simply this: the Packers have only gone against one true playoff team since before their devastating loss to the Bucs, which followed two emotional losses to the Vikings. I believe, as many Packer fans do, that Mike McCarthy and the team reached their rock bottom that day in Tampa, and reinvented themselves into the team that has gone 6-1 since that day, clawing their way back into the playoffs.
In many ways, this is a totally different team than the one we saw early on in 2009, the team that nearly lost to the Bears in the opener, then were shocked by the Bengals. In fact, after watching both the Vikings and Packers the last few weeks, many of us would be willing to put some coin down on the Packers in their third-matchup, if it happens.
But, you see, it's not the point. The Packers, like many teams, thrive on momentum. And it seems like the Packers have gone up and down all season. When the Packers can't seem to get it going early, they struggle the rest of the game. But, more importantly, this is a team that most of us gave up all playoff hopes on following the Bucs Debacle, and the Packers have played with a renewed vigor that, even in the loss against the Steelers, you felt like they had left it all out on the field.
So, the question becomes...do you take that chance, and give up that momentum? The Arizona Cardinals are the ONLY team the Packers will face in the last seven games of their season that has already wrapped up a playoff spot, the only team besides Pittsburgh that they really have a chance to test their mettle against. Was the 17-7 victory against the Cowboys a rebound victory after Tampa? Was it a trap game for the Cowboys, who had just won a huge game on the road against division rival Philadephia, and was looking ahead to another division game against the Redskins?
The Packers took that Cowboy victory (perhaps our most reviled rival outside the division) and have carried that momentum all the way through today. The fact that it came a week after the most half-assed performance of the season isn't lost on me.
The Packers thrive on momentum, and that's a sign of a team that isn't quite in the upper echelons of the league yet. The truly great teams take those cold stretches or days they don't start out on the right foot and find a way to methodically chip away and recover, whether in be in the game itself or over the course of several games.
That's not to say that the Packers can't make it to the NFC Championship game. In fact, I would say that the momentum that they have carried over the last seven games have been exactly what you want entering the playoffs, especially as a wild-card team.
Which is why the Packers can't afford to whittle this game away. Coach McCarthy does many things well, but he's not always great at outsmarting the other team. In fact, one might go as far to say that Mike can outsmart himself, and that is a huge concern going into the game on Sunday.
As Mike Vandermause astutely notes, McCarthy did exactly that two seasons ago, resting everyone in the season finale against the Lions. The results for a 13-3 team seeded #2 overall? After a nineteen-day layoff for most of the starters, they fell behind 14-0 against the Seahawks before pulling it out in the snow, then laid an egg against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship. The Giants, on the other hand, played their darndest against the Pats in their "meaningless" season finale, and despite the loss, kept their momentum going. It paid off when they upset the Cowboys and Packers on the road, then got the rematch in the Super Bowl, didn't it?
The Packers are not the Saints or the Colts right now. Sure, they're one of the hottest teams over the second half of the season, but in the playoffs, it doesn't matter. Every team is going to kick it up a gear in the playoffs, and the Packers simply aren't a team that can afford to coast and keep their momentum going.
The Packers have got to put themselves in their best position to win their first playoff game. There's no moral victories here. There's no "win" in coming out of the game without any major injuries or not giving up any major secret gameplans if you are playing not to win to begin with.
Heck, I've got enough respect for Dom Capers to believe that he can come up with new wrinkles in his gameplan despite having to play the same team twice in a row. That's the kind of attitude you have to take if you want to go deep in the playoffs. "We don't care if you know what we're going to do. We're going to beat you anyway."
Mike McCarthy's reputation has taken many of the same roller-coaster rises and falls that the team has had this season. Let's hope that he can solidify his reputation by playing hard against the Cardinals two weeks in a row and getting two wins...or at least, the win that counts. The repercussions for repeating past mistakes of taking the air out of your team's tires going into the playoffs are well-documented. If Matt Flynn is taking too many snaps on Sunday, and the Packers are one-and-done in the playoffs, that will land right on MM's shoulders.