Good-bye to a first-round bye?

The Packers will need to finish strong because Seattle and Tampa Bay are in pursuit and facing easy schedules. The Packers' finishing schedule looks easy, too, but Oakland is improving, St. Louis is dangerous and Chicago has shown it can beat Green Bay.

It's a foregone conclusion the Green Bay Packers will finish the regular season in second place in the NFC and earn a first-round bye.


Well, not so fast.

The Packers (10-2) hold a two-game lead over West-leading Seattle and South-leading Tampa Bay with four games remaining in the race for second place in the conference.

A look at the remaining schedules of the Packers, Seahawks and Buccaneers shows Green Bay, while certainly in formidable position, is by no means guaranteed to earn the NFC's No. 2 seed. That's because Seattle and Tampa Bay have easy schedules that could allow one or both to finish 12-4.

Green Bay's final schedule: Sunday, home vs. Oakland (4-8); Dec. 16, at St. Louis (3-9); Dec. 23, at Chicago (5-8); Dec. 30, home vs. Detroit (6-6).

Tampa Bay's final schedule: Sunday, at Houston (5-7); Dec. 16, home vs. Atlanta (3-9); Dec. 23, at San Francisco (3-9); Dec. 30, home vs. Carolina (5-7).

Seattle's final schedule: Sunday, home vs. Arizona (3-9); Dec. 16, at Carolina (5-7); Dec. 23, home vs. Baltimore (4-8); Dec. 30, at Atlanta (3-9).

 As you perhaps noticed, none of the three teams play a team with a winning record for the rest of the season. In fact, only Green Bay's game against free-falling Detroit features a game against a squad with so much as a .500 record.

In the unlikely event the Packers go 2-2 in their final four games, they'd lose out to either Seattle or Tampa Bay should one or both of those teams run the table. The Packers, Seahawks and Buccaneers are all 7-2 against the NFC, so Green Bay would lose tiebreakers to both teams should there be a second-place tie at 12-4.

Of course, what the Seahawks or Buccaneers do is irrelevant if the Packers take care of business.

Given Oakland's problems on offense, its decision to finally start breaking in No. 1 overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell at quarterback (Josh McCown likely will start, with Daunte Culpepper slowed by a quadriceps injury) and the cold weather, the Packers should do their part on Sunday. Then again, the Raiders have won two straight and are trying to emulate the Packers' season-ending kick of last season and use it as a springboard for 2008.

"To be able to finish strong and have your guys feeling good going into that offseason is a very big thing for teams," Oakland coach Lane Kiffin said. "Teams have built off of that forever. We'd love to finish strong going into the offseason here, as well."

Next week's game at St. Louis is worrisome, too. With Marc Bulger at quarterback, Steven Jackson at running back and Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce at receiver, the Rams have to be the best 3-9 team in NFL history.

Then, Green Bay heads to Chicago. The Bears are out of the playoff picture, but it's still a rivalry game in a hostile event, and Chicago took Round 1.

On the other side of the coin, there's a chance Green Bay could still earn the No. 1 seed. There's no reason the Packers shouldn't go 14-2, while Dallas has games at Detroit, home to Philadelphia, at Carolina and at Washington.

It's hard to believe the Cowboys can lose two of those games, just like it's hard to believe the Packers will lose two of their remaining games. But, as the movie title says, anything can happen on any given Sunday.

Steve Lawrence is a regular contributor to E-mail him at

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