Pretenders, not contenders

For the first time since 1991, the Green Bay Packers enter the final game of the regular season knowing that they have not qualified for the National Football League playoffs. While other teams are battling for position in the playoffs, or resting their starters in preparation for the postseason, the Packers can only evaluate younger players and pretend that they are playing in a Super Bowl.

Since the Packers went 4-12 in 1991, they have only missed the playoffs three times – 1992, 1999, and 2000. In the latter two seasons, the Packers won their final games but just missed qualifying. In 1992, the Packers were riding a six-game winning streak and talking playoffs into the finale under first-year head coach Mike Holmgren, but a 27-7 setback to the Minnesota Vikings in the Metrodome doused all hopes.

This year the Packers were eliminated from the playoffs in late November by the Philadelphia Eagles. With no post-season game ahead, many of the Packers are reluctantly planning for their off-season as Green Bay's season concludes this Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Seattle Seahawks.

"Usually we didn't know when our season was going to end with the playoffs, but now we know where we are," said defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. "This is like our Super Bowl, our championship. This is a very good team that we're about to play and we look forward to playing them."

The Packers enter the game 3-12, Mike Sherman's worst season as head coach of the Packers. Seattle is 13-2 and has clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

The Packers finished 9-7 under Sherman in 2000, his first year as head coach, by winning the final four games (7 of the last 10). In each of the past four seasons, the Packers have annually won 10 or more games. Needless to say, this has been a frustrating season for Sherman, who has been under fire by the media and fans throughout the season.

"When you go through something like this, and I've shared this with the players, you become very introspective at times," Sherman said. "There are some challenges that you have to deal with as a coach and as a person. Certainly, you can't help but change when you go through adversity. You can't help but see things in a different light at times. In some ways, I wouldn't wish it on anybody to be in the situation we are in this year. There are life-changing things, or career-changing things, in your perspective. You really evaluate things on both sides, as a coach, as a man and so forth."

The end is almost near, and with it will come change within the roster, and possibly the coaching staff. Many veterans like kicker Ryan Longwell, running back Ahman Green, fullback William Henderson, defensive tackle Grady Jackson and center Mike Flanagan are in the final year of their contract. Not all of them will be back. All they can do now is plan ahead for the near future, something they've never thought about in December.

"This is the first time and hopefully the last time I'll have to do that," said Henderson.

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