Chance to finish strong

Areas to watch as Packers head down the stretch run of season

What in the name of Louie Aguiar is going on at 1265 Lombardi Avenue?

Didn't the young Green Bay Packers get over the hump at The Hump by defeating Minnesota, 23-17? Instead taking advantage of a dreadfully mediocre conference, the Packers regressed miserably in three straight losses to New England, Seattle, and New York by a count of 107-34. And right when Green Bay seems destined for another top five pick, they completely regain their spirit in a solid 30-19 win at the Bay of the West.

But Sunday at home against Detroit, consistency should prevail. Brett Favre has feasted on the Lions at Lambeau more than any other team. In the season full of ups and downs, this should be one certainty. A win over the 2-11 Lions is huge for the Pack, even if playoff hopes are meeker than Michael Richards' future as a comedian.

Ending the season with three straight NFC North wins would be a significant springboard for Mike McCarthy and his young team, much like Mike Sherman in his first year when Green Bay ended the year with four consecutive division wins to finish 9-7. That surge equated to a 12-4 campaign the following season and three division titles after that. Never underestimate the month of December ... even for a team destined for the golf course.

If anything can be taken from Green Bay's perplexing double-personality, it's that it definitely has a short memory. The collapse in Buffalo and embarrassment against the Jets were both followed with inspiring efforts. The NFL's youngest team has shown glimpses of promise to tease cheeseheads. But there are a few obvious areas that Ted Thompson cannot ignore this off-season, and he should use the next three NFC Norris battles for a gauge. A few areas he'll be particularly alert to:

The run defense. If Arlen Harris (Detroit) and Artose Pinner (Minnesota) rip up the Packers defense the way Frank Gore, Shaun Alexander and the rest of the league did this year, then an enormous red flag will rise. It was assumed that Jim Bates' philosophy would continue in new coordinator Bob Sanders, but week after week teams simply wear the Packers D out in the trenches.

If Harris, who ran for 85 yards and a score against Green Bay in '03 with St. Louis, runs rampant at Lambeau than Thompson can't help but make wholesale changes in addition to Sanders who is all but fired.

As Aaron Kampman emerges as a pass-rusher, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila's purpose is dwindling. Taking long, hard looks at Cullen Jenkins, Corey Williams, Michael Montgomery, and others the rest of the season will tell Thompson whether he should pursue a top-flight DE during the off-season. Right now that may be the team's biggest need ... Gore could tell you that. The defensive line must be able to disrupt or at least tie up blockers to allow Green Bay's promising linebacker unit of A.J. Hawk, Nick Barnett, and Brady Poppinga to make plays. Too many of Hawk's 110 tackles are made 4 to 8 yards downfield.

The receivers. It's been a long time since Green Bay paid up for a premier wide receiver. Ron Wolf admitted that his one regret was not giving Favre more weapons. Right now Donald Driver (73-1103-7) and Greg Jennings (43-625-3) are firmly entrenched as the Pack's starters. But beyond that, who knows? The top WR after these two only has 11 catches. Raw Ruvell Martin has made the occasional third-down snag and the verdict is still out on unproven Carlyle Holiday. But Holiday is hard-pressed to mimic Arnaz Battle as a Notre Dame QB-turned-WR.

Green Bay cannot count on Koren Robinson. Being banned from the facilities will only back track Robinson for next season, and he's a complete head case anyways.

At tight end it looked like David Martin was in the midst of a resurgence before his annual injury. Bubba Franks' consistent regression only intensifies the team's need for a sure-handed TE. Sure, it's handy to have an extra lineman like Bubba in the running game, but any team threatening for a title needs a pass-catching end that capitalizes on gaps down the middle of the field. What do top ends Antonio Gates (64-798-8), Tony Gonzalez (60-759-5), Jason Witten (49-586-1), Jeremy Shockey (56-556-7), Todd Heap (59-597-6), and Ben Watson (49-643-3) all have in common? Their teams are all in Super Bowl contention with for a combined 52-26 record. Therefore, it's not surprising that 5-8 Green Bay's best tight end only has 21 catches. Why not try to incorporate Franks and Donald Lee more in these final three games to search for a possible blueprint for the future?

Mike McCarthy. It wouldn't be wise for Thompson to fire the rookie head coach after one season, but the next three games will reflect McCarthy's ability to motivate. In Sherman's first year, Green Bay played with pride going 4-7 to 9-7. A gutty OT win over playoff bound Tampa Bay in the season finale indicated Sherman's top-notch motivation skills as winning seasons ensued (albeit with playoff disappointments).

If McCarthy's squad gives an uninspired effort similar to the New England and New York games, than his seat will definitely heat up. It's one thing to lose at Lambeau. It's quite another to be completely wiped out in the snow. It's McCarthy's job to re-establish homefield against two division rivals over the next two games.

It would be easy for Green Bay to start reminiscing with "what-ifs." If not for early-season meltdowns against St. Louis, New Orleans, and Buffalo than the Pack would be in the NFC playoff picture. But playing football is fueled by humble desire in times of turmoil, not complaints about "what could have been." It's time to face reality. Green Bay is a team in transition, and the final three games are essential for the future.

Note: Tyler Dunne is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.


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