GREEN BAY – In addition to the NFC North title, a little slice of history is on the line Sunday night as well.
Should the Packers win their fifth straight division crown, Mike McCarthy would become just the third head coach in the history of the NFC Central/North to finish in first place five consecutive times.
Bud Grant won six straight NFC Central titles with the Vikings from 1973-78, and Mike Ditka won five straight with the Bears from 1984-88. Since then, only Green Bay’s Mike Holmgren and Mike Sherman have won as many as three in a row, until McCarthy.
Seventeen players on the Packers’ current roster (including injured reserve) have been with Green Bay throughout the streak, and rest assured, it matters to them. Even with a playoff berth already in their back pocket heading into Sunday night’s showdown with Minnesota, holding onto their perch atop the division would mean a lot, and not just because it would give the Packers a home playoff game next week.
“We feel like it’s our division to lose,” veteran guard Josh Sitton said. “We take pride in that. Minnesota is obviously a very good football team, and they’ve turned things around over there, and they have a great squad. But we feel like this is our division, and we have to go take it.”
Interestingly, none of Grant’s six consecutive division crowns, nor any of Ditka’s five straight came down to a head-to-head, for-the-title contest in the regular-season finale.
Ditka’s Bears had the division clinched before the last game every time. Grant’s team in ’77 had to beat Detroit in the final game to stay tied with Chicago and win the division on a tiebreaker, but that was the extent of the final-week drama.
In ’78, the last year of Grant’s streak, the Vikings actually lost their last two games, but so did the Packers, and with both teams 8-7-1, Minnesota was awarded first by virtue of its 1-0-1 record against Green Bay. Talk about anti-climactic.
There’s no such backing into it these days. This is the third straight year the NFC North has come down to a head-to-head battle for the title in Week 17, with the Vikings the third different division opponent for the Packers, following their wins over the Bears in ’13 and Lions last year.
“That’s how you want it,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “That’s why we play the game. It’s for big games like this.”
The NFL’s scheduling mandate that all Week-17 games pit division opponents against one another, put in place in 2010, has obviously upped the odds for these scenarios, but no division has experienced as much compelling theater as the NFC North.
It’s as though the schedule-maker has been clairvoyant each year, knowing which two teams would be playing king of the mountain at season’s end. In reality, though, it’s been a regular matchup rotation, beginning with Bears-Packers and Lions-Vikings in 2010, and things have fallen just right.
Even from 2010-12, when the NFC North was decided before the finale, Green Bay’s last game has featured the top two teams in the division, both ultimately playoff-bound.
The one constant in the mix has been the Packers. The title streak began in ’11 and now has a chance to reach a historic place in a division chock full of rivalries and tradition.
“They want to knock us off our throne, man,” receiver James Jones said of the Vikings. “I know they’re going to come in here fired up.”
The guys on the throne will be pretty fired up, too.
Click here for more Packers-Vikings preview coverage