The surging Green Bay Packers just missed the playoffs, and the rest of the NFC must be breathing a sigh of relief.
The Packers won their last four games of the season, including Sunday night's dominating 26-7 throttling of the powerful Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
The first three wins in the Packers' streak were good (winning at San Francisco), bad (winning at home against Detroit) and ugly (winning at home against Minnesota). The fourth win, though, was a work of art.
Not to say the Packers would have been Super Bowl contenders had they reached the postseason, but I'm not sure anyone would have wanted to play them. Only one breakdown in pass coverage stood between the Packers' defense and a 12-quarter touchdown-less streak to end the season.
Nick Collins had two of the interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, but was just as impressive with his open-field tackling in the run game. Corey Williams and Cullen Jenkins put a hurting on the Bears' quarterbacks. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila got a sack. Charles Woodson got another interception. Al Harris shut down Muhsin Muhammad.
The Packers allowed 23 points in their final three games, and seven of those were allowed by the offense last week against Minnesota. It's an amazing turnaround for a defense that was among the league's worst just a month ago and was playing so poorly that the firing of defensive coordinator Bob Sanders seemed a foregone conclusion.
"It proves the last three games we played wasn't any type of luck or anything," Jenkins said. "This is how good we are and how far we've improved. It gives us a lot to look forward to next year."
"The last four or five games," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, "we played as good a defense as anyone in the league."
But it wasn't just the defense. If this was Favre's final game, it wasn't his best, but he set the tone with the game-opening touchdown drive. Favre completed three third-down passes, including a 9-yard laser to Donald Driver for the opening score. Remember in Week 1 against the Bears, when the Packers couldn't convert a third down if their life depended on it? Well, they went 11-for-20, or 55 percent, on Sunday night.
And finally, there was the coaching job by McCarthy, who deserves praise for holding the team together during that disastrous midseason stretch of games that included humiliating losses to New England and the New York Jets. McCarthy has plenty to learn, but he's also learned plenty. The running game wasn't up to par against the Bears, but he stuck with it to the tune of 34 rushes for 97 yards. That's only 2.9 yards per carry, and with success like that, many coaches would have thrown the gameplan out the window. McCarthy stuck with the run, and it made Favre's life easier.
Between avenging the 26-0 whitewashing by the Bears in Week 1 to finishing the season with four straight wins, the Packers will enter the offseason feeling awfully good about themselves and the direction McCarthy and Ted Thompson are leading them.
The first seven wins came mostly against NFL bottom-feeders, so it was hard to judge the Packers' progress. But Sunday's performance against Chicago, even if the Bears weren't playing for anything, can't be overlooked.
"I wish we would have got (into the playoffs), because we're doing a lot of positive things," McCarthy said. "We put our best football forward in December. It also shows the importance of starting fast, which we did not accomplish. This is something we feel will carry over into the offseason."
It's interesting to contrast the Packers' good feelings to the bad vibes that will surround the top-seeded Bears entering the playoffs. Chicago can't trust its quarterback, and now its trademark defense has been run ragged the past four games.
It's enough to make a Packers fan positively giddy as they look ahead to 2007. Favre or no Favre, the foundation clearly has been built for a winning future.
Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to email@example.com.