My, How Expectations Change

After a few wins and a week to think about how good they are, the Packers are talking Super Bowl and other lofty predictions. The reality is that they are a .500 team right now and wouldn't even make the playoffs if they started today, but judging from the players' quotes you wouldn't know that.

For a team with a .500 record, the Packers were remarkably assured this week after getting back to work after their bye. Player after player spoke openly about their suddenly burgeoning Super Bowl chances in the flimsy NFC.

"We're definitely going to be there," fullback Nick Luchey said. "It's almost crazy for me to say that, but the way we're moving on offense, we're going to be all right. We respect all these teams, but we can play with anybody in the league."

If the NFC playoffs began today, the Packers (4-4) would be the seventh seed and wouldn't qualify. Philadelphia (7-1), Atlanta (6-2), Minnesota (5-3), Seattle (5-3), the New York Giants (5-3) and St. Louis (4-4), by virtue of the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Packers, would fill the six playoff slots.

But the Packers, left for dead the night of Oct. 11 after a 48-27 shellacking by Tennessee at Lambeau Field, are rolling with three victories in a row and primed for another of their patented second-half runs.

"Don't be surprised if we end up with the second-best (NFC) record," safety Darren Sharper said. "I know we have the team to get to the Super Bowl. We just have to win the games we're supposed to."

No team in NFL history has ever started a season with as poor a record as 1-4 and reached the NFL championship game or a Super Bowl.

"There's a time for everything," defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt said. "It's falling into place again like it did last year. We've got to take it one game at a time, but you can't help but think about the Super Bowl."

On Monday morning, Las Vegas Sports Consultants had the odds to win the Super Bowl like this: The Eagles and New England (7-1) were tied at 2-1, followed by Pittsburgh (7-1) at 5-1, Indianapolis (5-3) and Minnesota at 6-1, Baltimore (5-3) and Seattle at 10-1, Denver (6-3) at 12-1, the New York Jets (6-2) at 14-1 and the Packers at 16-1.

St. Louis checks in at 20-1, Atlanta is 22-1 and Detroit, despite a 4-4 record, is 80-1.

"The tide has definitely turned where there's three or four AFC teams that would seem to be a better Super Bowl candidate than really anybody in the NFC save for the Eagles," said Dan O'Brien, an oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants.

"After the Eagles there's a huge dropoff. Minnesota, Atlanta and Seattle have enough shortcomings to talk you out of wanting to pick them to go all the way. St. Louis is a fraud. Green Bay, you're not sure what to make of them. Same thing with the Giants."

To win the NFC, the Eagles are even money, Minnesota is 3-1, Seattle is 5-1, Green Bay is 8-1 and Atlanta, the Giants and St. Louis are 10-1.

Of the six NFC teams tied with 3-5 records, Dallas is 30-1.

Two teams with 1-4 starts, the Pittsburgh Steelers of 1976 and the Tennessee Titans of 2002, got as far as the AFC Championship Game before being eliminated.

"Everybody wants to look at statistics and say you can't do this and you can't do that," center Grey Ruegamer said. "Well, no one ever won a playoff series being three games down, either, until the Red Sox. We got off to a bad start, but that doesn't mean you can't finish strong."

Ruegamer should know. He earned a Super Bowl ring after the ‘01 season when the New England Patriots overcame a 1-3 start to win it all.

"That's what history is all about," Luchey said. "You can rewrite history."

The Packers' remaining schedule, on paper at least, is tougher than any of the other NFC contenders'. But player after player said they feared no team in the NFC and didn't think anyone was stronger than Green Bay.

"Teams are matched pretty damn evenly," guard Mike Wahle said, adding that the Packers "absolutely" could reach the Super Bowl. "It's a little early to be talking about that, honestly, but it's all in front of us. Considering the way we started, we've got to be pretty positive about things."

After being decimated by the Titans, the Packers trailed 11 teams in the NFC and shared the same record as the other four. With all of the NFC pace-setters coming back to the Packers, it's no wonder the Green Bay locker room is such a cheery place these days.

"It definitely could happen," linebacker Na'il Diggs said, referring to the Super Bowl. "But it's too far away. I don't think about it."

The AFC leads the NFC, 21-13, in interconference games. The last time the NFC won the season series over the AFC was 1995.

"If we were in the AFC we'd definitely have to pin our ears back right now, being 4-4," said Luchey, a Cincinnati Bengal from 1999 to 2002.

As it stands now, the Packers intend to pick up where they left off before the bye and perform as they have in the past when the weather turns. Since Mike Sherman became coach 4 1/2 years ago, the Packers are 27-9 in November and beyond, including a league-leading 17-2 in December and beyond.

"Basically, it's getting closer and closer, and there's just little edges," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "A lot of it has to do with momentum and confidence. We've got both right now. Look how successful we've been in November and December."

Wide receiver Javon Walker indicated that the Super Bowl was a genuine possibility but said it should be downplayed it until the Packers improve to at least 8-4. But teammate Robert Ferguson doesn't even try to hide his Super Bowl excitement.

"Far-fetched?" he said. "No, it ain't far-fetched at all. It's still premature, but it's a dream of mine and I talk about it in preseason. We definitely have all the tools. We can beat anybody."

  • The second half of the season will be as much a plebiscite on Mike Sherman as it will be on their own playoff fate.

    With Sherman's contract due to run out after the 2005 season, Packers president Bob Harlan soon will be facing an enormous decision.

    Harlan can continue with Sherman in the dual role as coach and general manager, an organizational structure that Harlan philosophically opposes. He can continue with Sherman as coach only if Sherman would agree to relinquish his GM duties. He can continue with Sherman as GM only if Sherman would agree to relinquish his coaching duties. Or he can go on without Sherman by hiring a GM and letting him pick the next coach.

    Certainly, Harlan has had more than enough time to evaluate Sherman as both a coach and GM. He has watched Sherman win at a 63.6 percent clip, the fourth-best record among active coaches. He also has watched Sherman's first two playoff teams fail to even compete in their elimination game and his third blow a golden opportunity in Philadelphia against a lesser opponent.

    Despite his record, there was a groundswell of anti-Sherman sentiment building when the Packers began this season with a despicable and inexplicable 1-4 record. Just as suddenly, that groundswell has abated in the midst of a three-game winning streak that has positioned the Packers at 4-4 entering the second half.

    Partially because of salary-cap restraints but also because of his own instincts, Sherman sought to leave well enough alone in the offseason. Because of it, there might not be another team in the league that has undergone so few changes as the Packers in a year's time.

    What the Packers are putting on the field is the residue of Sherman's skill, creativity and vision as a coach, manager and personnel man. After five years, including four in the dual role, Harlan will have a large body of work on which to offer judgment.

    On offense, the only lineup change from 2003 is at center, where Grey Ruegamer isn't nearly as good as injured Mike Flanagan. Ruegamer has been more than capable in pass protection, but Ruegamer can neither get out on linebackers routinely nor make the consistent hair-trigger decisions at the line that made Flanagan so effective as a run blocker.

    It's one reason why the Packers are rushing for about 35 fewer yards per game than they were in mid-2003.

    Despite all the flaws on defense in ‘03, Sherman elected to play a pat hand from a personnel standpoint. The front seven is unchanged from down the stretch last season. In the secondary, Mark Roman has replaced Marques Anderson and Ahmad Carroll has replaced Mike McKenzie.

    Grady Jackson and McKenzie were the best players on that defense last season. However you want to slice it, McKenzie isn't on the field helping the Packers win. It is Sherman's job to create an environment in which the best players flourish. Obviously, that didn't happen.

    In the next seven games, a murderer's row of elite and mostly big wide receivers will offer a monumental challenge to the Packers' secondary. The list includes Minnesota's Randy Moss (maybe), Houston's Andre Johnson, St. Louis' Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, Philadelphia's Terrell Owens, Detroit's Roy Williams and Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith.

    It was Sherman who bent the Packers' height standard at cornerback by selecting Carroll. It was Sherman who bucked widespread concerns among scouts regarding Joey Thomas' attitude by taking him in the third round. And it was Sherman who gave Al Harris a $5.25 million signing bonus Sept. 11 even though he's almost 30 and never did run all that well. Once the ink was dry on Harris' extension, it became apparent that any chance of McKenzie contributing in Green Bay was history.

    The wisdom of his decisions regarding all three players will be open for discussion over the next eight weeks.

    Of course, Sherman's most momentous decision of the offseason was to replace defensive coordinator Ed Donatell with secondary coach Bob Slowik. It's a new system and growing pains have been evident, just as Sherman anticipated there would be. But the question becomes: Are the Packers and will the Packers be any better defensively under Slowik than they were under Donatell?

    They haven't been so far. Slowik and Sherman talked so resolutely about blitzing week in and week out, but that lasted only until the 45-point debacle in Week 3 against Indianapolis.

    Slowik has been back blitzing the last three games almost to the extent that he did in the first three. Still, after eight games, Slowik's blitz ratios on passes (31.7 percent five or more, 11.8 percent six or more) is only slightly higher than Donatell's over 18 games last season (29.4 percent, 8.8 percent).

    One thing we know about Sherman: He's a hard, hard man to defeat. You can double that for Brett Favre, his quarterback.

    Consigned to the shredder at 1-4, this team has regained the .500 mark despite a turnover differential of minus-10. Turnovers tend to even out, and with Donatell's strong track record for generating takeaways it's a good bet they would have again this season. With Slowik, we just don't know.

  • The last two times that the Vikings came to Lambeau Field, defensive tackle Chris Hovan's mouth made for easy headlines. Today, Hovan might be the worst starter on a mediocre defensive line, and nobody really cares what he has to say.

    Hovan's career began to go south last season when he had just 27 solo tackles and two sacks in 16 starts. He is no better this year with 10 solos and 1 1/2 sacks.

    There's no questioning Hovan's effort. He comes hard all the time. But all that thrashing around isn't translating into plays anymore.

    Hovan used to be able to overcome below-average size with a quick first step. It often got him to the edge of interior blockers and, with his tenacity, led to sacks, pressures and tackles for loss. At 26, scouts now say he has lost a fraction of quickness that he could ill afford to lose.

    For all of his bluster, Hovan has just 17 sacks in 4 1/2 seasons. Although Hovan pressured Brett Favre relentlessly in the Vikings' 31-21 victory in November 2002 at the Metrodome, he has never sacked him.

  • The Packers have returned to an even more restrictive policy for reporters this week. After closing practice Monday, the team announced that the entire practice week would be closed except for the first 15 minutes Wednesday.

    During coach Mike Sherman's first four seasons, the Packers had continued their open practice policy for reporters that essentially has been in effect since the mid-1980s. Without explanation, Sherman has closed practice since Sept. 6, although for three weeks in October he did allow partial viewing Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

    John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, president of the Pro Football Writers of America, last month lobbied on behalf of open practices with the Packers' publicity department. The NFL has no rules in this area.

  • Coach Mike Sherman was asked for reasons why his teams are 24-16 in the first halves of seasons and 23-9 in the second halves.

    "It seems to me we become more physical in the second half," he said. "We keep the pads on all year long. Other people may take them off.

    "Our quarterback can throw the ball through different air currents. Our kicker is very good at Lambeau.

    "We change our schedule a little bit. Cut back on time in this building. We put special emphasis on the second half.

    "Mainly it's the attitude of the players. They can see clearly now what has to happen for them to achieve what they want."

    BY THE NUMBERS: 94.8 — Opponents' passing rating after eight games against Green Bay. When the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996, opposing QBs had a rating of 39.7 after eight games.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Whatever we need, we have. Boom. No questions asked. We've got the best facilities in football." — G Marco Rivera.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    --DT Cletidus Hunt enters the second half of the season with six solo tackles and no sacks. "He should be a three-technique that really raises havoc in the backfield," coach Mike Sherman said. "My supposition was he'd be a dominant three-technique."

  • C Grey Ruegamer has started five games for injured Mike Flanagan, out for the season with a knee injury. "Ruegamer has made steady progress," coach Mike Sherman said. "He's come further than I anticipated."

  • DT Kenny Peterson, a third-round pick in ‘03, has been inactive for the last two games. "I'm pleased with Kenny," coach Mike Sherman said. "He's done what I've asked him to do."

  • T Mark Tauscher came in for high praise from coach Mike Sherman. "I believe Tausch is having his best year," he said. "He's playing much improved football from last year."

  • K Ryan Longwell has made seven field goals in a row. "It's a tremendous advantage to have him as our kicker," coach Mike Sherman said.


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