A lot on the line

The Green Bay Packers are playing their "best football" of the season, according to Mike McCarthy. But does that make them good enough to be playoff contenders? PackerReport.com's Matt Tevsh explains how a win over the New England Patriots Sunday at Lambeau Field could be a defining moment for the team.

A win on Sunday at Lambeau Field against the mighty New England Patriots will give the Packers season a meaning that seemed unimaginable back in August. At 5-5, they will be for real in the NFC playoff hunt in what really is a season of transition for the team.

No one affiliated with the Packers is looking ahead and there is still much work to be done, but recent weeks have given the team something to build on this year, not just for the future. Predictably enough the Packers got off to a 1-4 start, but in the past four games they have played well enough to suggest that this year is not a lost cause. An upset of Bill Belichick and Co. will define the rest of the season as a run for the playoffs, not just another step in the rebuilding process.

"I'll say this, we're playing our best football," surmised Packers coach Mike McCarthy on Monday, a day after a 23-17 victory over the Vikings at the Metrodome. "And if that's good enough, time will tell. But we're playing our best football. Yeah, you'd always like to come out of the gate playing fast because you look at the best way to get in the playoffs is to get on a roll there early and get some wins under your belt. But this is the most important time of year, November. Where we want to be? Yeah, I want to be undefeated, but that's not the case. But I'm happy with the progress we've made. If you look at the way we started the season and the number of things we did to hurt ourselves, I don't think you're seeing that as much. I think we're playing at a very high level emotionally, physically. The style of football play is what I want this football team to look like, and if we continue to do that, a lot more positive things are going to happen. Frankly, I don't think the ball has bounced a whole lot our way. But I have no control over that. I can only control the way we approach the game, the way we prepare the game, and hopefully it will correlate to how well we play the game, and that's really the way I look at it."

The Patriots represent a colossal challenge for a number of reasons. Not only are they recent three-time Super Bowl Champions, but they still have the core of their championship teams intact led by quarterback Tom Brady and linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Belichick, a modern-day Vince Lombardi for his recent record of success, is still calling the shots and game-planning defenses quite well.

In the previous two weeks, though, the Patriots (6-3) have shown some vulnerability. They have lost two games in a row for the first time since 2002. Questions have been raised regarding the identity of their complex offensive scheme. For the first time in four years, the Patriots actually look beatable.

Adding to the intrigue of the game is that the Packers, not expected to do much this season, have been a team on the rise, gaining confidence. Sure, they have not beaten many quality opponents, but every week has brought different challenges, and the Packers have been meeting those challenges more times than not in the past month. That they are the youngest team in the NFL makes their accomplishments even more impressive.

"There's a lot of positive things happening," said McCarthy. "I think there's very good character and chemistry in the locker room right now."

The Packers are expectedly and smartly downplaying the matchup, but this week's game feels like the biggest at Lambeau Field since a playoff clunker against the Vikings that ended the 2004 season. A win will move the Packers worlds ahead of where they were expected to be, and it just may propel them to sneak into the playoffs. What a story that would be!

In the NFC standings, the Packers are tied for ninth out of 16 teams. Only six advance to the playoffs. Behind the division leaders, though, several teams are bunched up. The Eagles, Cowboys, Falcons, and Panthers are all 5-4, and the group with the Packers at 4-5 includes the Vikings, the 49ers, and the Rams. Putting the Packers further behind, though, are head-to-head losses to the Eagles and Rams. They have beaten the Vikings and still have to travel to San Francisco (Dec. 10).

Clearly, the Packers are still in chase mode making Sunday's game not only big for positioning, but also confidence going forward. The Patriots, who have ruled the NFL over the past five years, would represent a landmark victory for McCarthy and his team. Should he go beyond that and do the unthinkable, reach the playoffs in his first season in Green Bay, he would be the first Packers coach to pull off such a feat.

Before getting carried away with any playoff talk, though, the Patriots are No. 1 on the priority list. After all, they have mastered the art of the dynasty in the current era of the NFL.

"I think when you look at their overall program, there's things that you admire," said McCarthy. "But when you get to this point in the season, as far as competing against them on the game field, they're different than we are from their approach defensively. They're different than we are in their approach probably offensively. There are some things you look to learn from because they definitely have set the standard here of late. But this game here is going to come down to where we're both at, at this point in the season. We are who we are and they are who they are, and that's how we'll approach this football game."

The Packers were supposed to be something like 3-6 or 2-7 headed into this week of the season. Brett Favre even resigned himself to the notion that it could be a difficult year, much like the 4-12 campaign of 2005. Like Favre, though, the Packers have played much better and have had better results to show for it. The team's momentum might just be enough to pull off an upset of the Patriots, which might just prompt a return to the playoff contention sooner than expected.

Matt Tevsh

Matt Tevsh is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com.

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