GREEN BAY—After any loss, Wednesday is proverbial “turn the page” day, and that next page for the Green Bay Packers is as critical as any to the story unfolding in 2012.
Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings marks the first of three straight NFC North clashes, one against each division foe. At 7-4 and in second place in the division, now is the time for the Packers to define themselves and their season.
“Everything we want to accomplish as a football team is in front of us, and we have to go through the division to get it done,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday. “We’re coming onto December. I don’t know if it gets any more important than that.”
The Packers haven’t seen their schedule stacked like this since the end of McCarthy’s first season, when they finished 2006 with three consecutive division contests.
Back then, however, the Packers were on the fringe of the playoff chase and needed to win all three just to finish 8-8. This year, they’re right in the thick of it. With the 8-3 Chicago Bears one game ahead of Green Bay and the 6-5 Vikings one game behind, the NFC North is the poster child for the NFL’s new back-loaded scheduling formula.
“We like the set-up,” said defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, who sat out Wednesday’s practice with a quad injury but said he’ll play on Sunday. “Every game is important from here on out. It’s like being in the playoffs right now, so we have to start playing good football.”
Good football is what eluded the Packers last week in what ranks as their worst loss, score-wise, with Aaron Rodgers under center. Rodgers talked on Wednesday about the 28-point defeat to the Giants helping to “refocus” the team after the film was graded and critiqued.
Add to that a border rivalry McCarthy referred to as “salty at times,” and an NFC postseason picture that shows six teams all within one game of the sixth and final playoff seed, and there’s ample reason to refocus, and fast.
“The NFC is getting tight for the playoff race,” said Rodgers, whose 29th birthday is on Sunday. “If we win out, we win the division and host a playoff game at the very worst. We like where we’re at.
“Obviously, it wouldn’t hurt to have a couple more wins at this point, but we’ve put ourselves in position to make a run, and that’s all you can ask at this point in the season.”
Working in the Packers’ favor is a nine-game winning streak in division games that began with the 2010 regular-season finale vs. Chicago. In division games Rodgers has started and finished – he was sidelined with a concussion halfway through a loss in Detroit in Week 14 of 2010 – the streak is at 12. Plus, Rodgers and the offense will get receiver Greg Jennings back after a seven-game absence.
On the flip side, the defense likely will be without run-stopper C.J. Wilson (knee) against the league’s leading rusher, Adrian Peterson. It’s also unlikely star linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) can return this week, though McCarthy said Matthews would be evaluated again on Friday.
The defense has been up and down in Matthews’ absence, holding the Lions to 20 points two weeks ago before caving under a 38-point avalanche by the Giants last Sunday.
That result didn’t make this week’s game big. It only made it bigger.
“Urgency is definitely part of our theme. There’s no question about it, regardless of what happened in New York,” McCarthy said. “It’s heightened obviously because of our performance in New York, but yes, we have great urgency for the Vikings.
“It’s a division game. I really don’t think you need to say anything else but that. This is a game we need.” Additional coverage - Nov. 28