GREEN BAY – In Week 4 of his rookie season eight years ago, Packers receiver James Jones saw some new signs around the team facility with Vikings helmets on them.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy showed a highlight tape in the week’s first team meeting featuring all of the Packers’ division rivals, and Jones sensed a different “vibe” at practice from veteran receiver Donald Driver and other more experienced players.
Jones was preparing for the first NFC North game of his career, a trip to Minnesota at that time, and he was quickly learning division contests are a pretty big deal around here.
“As a young player, you see that, it’s different than previous weeks,” Jones said. “You know there’s something about these games that mean a little more.”
That was McCarthy’s second season in Green Bay, and the emphasis on division games has existed since his first. McCarthy stated it publicly again this week – “These are the most important games of the year, and we understand the urgency of these games” – as the Packers get set to host the Lions in the first of four consecutive NFC North showdowns, a run of division opponents unprecedented in his tenure.
A big believer in getting what he emphasizes, McCarthy has succeeded in conveying the importance of division games to his players. His record in the NFC North is 41-13-1, a .755 winning percentage that ranks second in the league dating back to his first season in 2006. Only New England and Bill Belichick (45-12-0, .789) have a better division record over the same time span.
As the Packers have seen their previous two-game lead over the Vikings in the division shrink to a dead heat in the last two weeks, the upcoming four games are probably arriving at the right time. The team needs to regroup, and being required to focus on division games should limit, if not eliminate, the distraction of wondering what happened to that perfect record.
“We haven’t played a division game in two months,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to it.”
Not surprisingly, Green Bay has fared well under McCarthy in three previous stretches of three straight NFC North matchups. The Packers went 3-0 in 2006, 3-0 in 2012 and 2-1 last year, losing at Detroit before rebounding with two wins in a span of five days.
The last time the Packers faced four consecutive division foes was back in 2000, when they ended the season against each of their rivals from the old NFC Central. This four-game stretch takes place over 19 days, finishing with back-to-back Thursday night games.
The Packers’ coaching staff spends extra time in the offseason studying division opponents because of the twice-a-year regularity. That process is more challenging if a division opponent changes coaches in the offseason (Chicago this year, Minnesota and Detroit last year), but personnel on the field always carries over.
This week there’s the unknown with Detroit’s recent partial overhaul of the offensive coaching staff, but that hasn’t taken away from the heightened value of the game McCarthy always preaches.
“It’s really nothing special, but he just lets you know these type of games are harder,” Jones said. “They’re harder to win. They’re more important when it starts coming down to playoff runs. These games mean more.”
They count in both the division and conference tiebreakers, and it’s a given McCarthy knows the Vikings are already 3-0 in the division this year, while his Packers are just 1-0, not having played a division game since Week 1.
If McCarthy has a secret to his division success, it’s probably in the consistency of his approach. Kicker Mason Crosby joined the Packers in the same 2007 draft class as Jones, and he’s witnessed the emphasis year after year after year.
It hasn’t changed, and it’s certainly not changing now.
“It’s always been the same message,” Crosby said. “That aspect has been consistent through my nine years here every time we play a division opponent.
“Lock in just a little bit more.”
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