NFC North Notes

The Lions are preparing to get a taste of one of the NFL's better teams to gauge if they've made any progress this year while the Packers are left trying to guess if Brett Favre will be playing in his final game.

DETROIT LIONS

The Lions have been out of the NFC playoff race for several weeks, but there's a good chance they'll get a taste of playoff-caliber football Sunday - whether they want it or not - thanks to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"They're awfully good and they've played particularly well down the stretch here in their playoff drive," Lions interim coach Dick Jauron said Wednesday. "I think they've outscored their opponents 80-something to nine or something in that area, anyway.

"So we've just got to prepare and be ready to play the best game we've played all year."

Jauron was only slightly off on the numbers; the Steelers have outscored Chicago, Minnesota and Cleveland by a combined score of 80-12 in their current three-game winning streak, which has taken them to the brink of the AFC playoffs.

The Steelers can clinch that playoff berth with a victory against the Lions, although it's possible - if San Diego beats Denver in a Saturday game - the Steelers already will be in the playoffs by game time Sunday.

But Jauron figures he knows Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher well enough to know that whether the Steelers need the win or not, it won't change the way they approach the game. And he apparently is right.

"As far as our preparation, I think the most important thing we've talked to our team about is that we're looking at this as a home playoff game," Cowher said. "It's the one thing we have control over, and that's really the only focus we're going to apply this week."

The Steelers were in a similar situation a year ago when they went to Buffalo for the final game of the season, sitting on a 14-1 record and the AFC home-field advantage, but it didn't result in a letdown.

"(The Bills) had to win a game to get in the playoffs, and we were able to beat them up in Buffalo," Cowher said, "because of the standards that have been set around here and how we play the game.

"We've talked about it before; it's not so much who plays but it's how we play. I think that's the thing that's been so good around here - the veteran leadership, the expectation, the standards that have been set."

That is probably bad news for the Lions, who go into the game with a 5-10 record, an offense that has struggled all year and a defense that is relying on backup linebackers. But Jauron sees it as an opportunity for the Lions.

"My view on this thing is that regardless of what happens, (the Steelers) are going to prepare hard all week," Jauron said. "They'll be prepared to play. If, in fact, they keep some people out, they can't keep everybody out. You just don't have enough players.

"Most of their players will be out there playing, most of their starters. It'll be a challenge for us regardless of which way it goes."

SERIES HISTORY: 28th meeting. The Lions hold a 14-12-1 edge, but the Steelers have won five of the last six between the teams, including the 47-14 win in the most recent meeting at Pittsburgh four years ago.


NOTES

  • With a 5-10 record and another disappointing season almost in the books already, the Lions have to look hard to find incentive for their game Sunday at Pittsburgh.

    The most obvious motivation for a sixth win would be that it would match last year's victory total (the best in president Matt Millen's first four years) and it would mean the Lions hadn't taken a step backwards in the win-loss column.

    But quarterback Joey Harrington says the victory total - at this point in the season - is meaningless. He says pride is a greater motivator now.

    "If you don't want to play for pride, you shouldn't be playing at all," Harrington said. "There's plenty of incentive for you as a player. The fact we're out of the playoffs is a non-issue. It's been that way for a couple of weeks, but I think guys showed (in the 13-12 win against New Orleans) there still is some pride on this team. We played just because we have a job to do.

    "I don't care about the record. Once you're out of the playoffs, records are irrelevant. We're playing because we have a job to do, and that's what we signed up for."

  • Steelers center Jeff Hartings said he had no regrets leaving the Lions as a free agent five years ago, and now - two Pro Bowl assignments later - he says he still has had no reason for second thoughts.

    Hartings, a 10-year NFL veteran and a Detroit first-round pick in 1996, was actually close to re-signing with the Lions in the weeks after Matt Millen took over as the team president.

    With negotiations stalled on less than $500,000, however, the Lions drew the line. Hartings was signed by the Steelers, and Millen proceeded to embark on a major overhaul of a Lions team that had barely missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

    "I was disappointed with all the changes," Hartings said. "I felt we had a 9-7 team, we worked hard, we had a very close team, we were just a couple plays from a 10-6 team and being in the playoffs.

    "I really felt we could go out and get better for the next year. When all the changes occurred, then I treated it as if I was not a Detroit Lion anymore. With the situation with the ownership there, once the general manager changes, it's basically going to be a new coach, new general manager. That's going to be a totally different team ... and that's what happened.

    "There were a lot of changes in the front office, with the coaches, with the trainers, with the strength training. And, as soon as that happened, then I had to treat it as if they were just another team in free agency."

  • QB Joey Harrington will be the Lions' starter for the 11th time in 16 games this season when the Lions play their season finale Sunday at Pittsburgh. Although his production and numbers have not been up to expectations, the Lions have a 4-6 record in the games he has started. Jeff Garcia, who started the other five games, was 1-4.

  • RG Damien Woody was sidelined with a boot on his left ankle during the Lions' first practice of the week Wednesday. Woody was injured in the New Orleans game Saturday but finished the game. He is listed as questionable for the Lions' season finale Sunday at Pittsburgh.

  • QB Dan Orlovsky, the Lions' fifth-round draft pick last spring, will be the backup QB in the season finale Sunday at Pittsburgh but is not expected to play unless starter Joey Harrington is injured. Interim coach Dick Jauron said he has no plans to give Orlovsky playing time as a test for his future with the Lions.

  • RB Kevin Jones, who has missed three of the past four games, is listed as questionable for the season finale at Pittsburgh. Jones suffered a hyperextended right elbow and has had difficulty holding the football securely.

  • LB Donte' Curry has missed the Lions' past two games with a quadriceps injury and did not practice Wednesday as preparations began for the season finale Sunday at Pittsburgh. The Lions have suffered a number of linebacker injuries and are hoping Curry will be available. He was listed as questionable.

    BY THE NUMBERS: 5 - Consecutive seasons in which the Lions have lost 10 games or more. Their five-year record under president Matt Millen is 21-58. Their best season was 6-10 in 2004.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I am surprised that it's been five years without a winning team. I think I expected Matt Millen to come in and do a great job; I mean, he's a great football guy. I think things just haven't gone his way with some draft picks." - Pittsburgh Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings, a former Lions offensive lineman, on his former team's struggles.

    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    Brett Favre isn't letting on whether he'll be mowing grass on his palatial Mississippi property or throwing passes on the Lambeau Field grass next September.

    With speculation mounting that Favre will be playing his final NFL game Sunday, when the Packers (3-12) host NFC regular-season champion Seattle (13-2), the indecisive quarterback didn't divulge Wednesday what decision he ultimately will make in the coming hours, days or months.

    "I don't know what I'm leaning toward," Favre said after practice. "I want to make the right decision. I want to make it for the right reasons."

    Whether intentional or not, the league's only three-time MVP dropped some intriguing hints during his weekly news conference about which way he may be leaning.

    For one, Favre acknowledged that the specter of Sunday's game being his swan song after 14 years as the team's indestructible starter has occurred to him.

    "I've had so many people say, ‘Well, you can't go out that way. You have to come back and redeem yourself and redeem this team's season,'" said Favre, alluding to the Packers' first losing season with him behind center, which will go down as his worst season.

    Favre, who hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in four straight games, leads the league with 28 interceptions, one short of Lynn Dickey's 1983 franchise record. Favre's passer rating of 70.5 is threatening his low-water mark of 72.2 in 1993.

    "In all honesty, if this is it, I have gone out on top. I really have," Favre contended. "One season does not define me, no matter how good or how bad it is. And this has been a bad season. But I've had so many great memories here, so much success, that I'd go out on top. I don't have to win (another) Super Bowl to go out on top."

    Although he said there are no physical issues that would hold him back from playing next year, Favre, 36, acknowledged, "I will have to put a lot of time and energy into it again. It just doesn't come as natural as it once did."

    To hear Favre further tell it, he's clearly of the opinion that a Packers team ravaged by injuries to key players on offense and inundated with young, inexperienced players isn't equipped to make a swift turnaround next season and vie for its first league title in a decade.

    "There's no guarantee that next year will be better," Favre argued. "And maybe the factors that contributed to our lack of success this year come up again. We have a ways to go to get back to where we were. And what direction this team wants to go may not include me or may include me but (it would be a matter of), ‘Brett, it may take a while to do this. Are you willing to go along for the ride? Are you willing to possibly have a season like this next year?' So, there's no guarantees."

    Favre has made it known that he's not crazy about playing for a new coach because of the likelihood of having to start from scratch in learning a new system. Therefore, the dismissal of coach Mike Sherman after six years, which isn't so far-fetched anymore, could sway Favre toward retirement.

    Mindful that nearly a third of the current 53-man roster is composed of players who are slated to be unrestricted free agents after the season, Favre made reference to the possibility he would be phased out if there's a rebuilding project afoot.

    "I think the easy thing to do is to keep playing, because it's all I know," he said. "But, as easy as that decision is, it could be the wrong one. Because maybe in the process I continue to play, but maybe I'm just not as productive as I once was, or maybe I'm not the type of player they need now, or maybe they want to go in a different direction and they don't know how to tell Brett Favre, ‘We want to go in a different direction.'"

    Though he called it purely an assumption, Favre conceded it's plausible his services no longer are needed in Green Bay, saying it would make sense from a business standpoint if indeed the organization is building to get better in the long, not short, term. Favre is scheduled to draw a hefty salary of $7 million in 2006.

    Without elaborating, Favre said he's had periodic discussions with first-year general manager Ted Thompson, presumably about the direction of the team. Waiting in the wings is Aaron Rodgers, whom Thompson anointed as Favre's heir apparent by selecting him in the first round of the draft last spring.

    "I want to do, honestly, what's best for the team," Favre said. "I know they're scheduled to pay me a lot of money. I would surely hope I don't come back for that; I never have. I may be the only fool to ever get up here and say that. They've always paid me a lot of money, but I'd hope I've given back to them what they've given to me, and I would hope that that would never change. Up to this point, it hasn't.

    "When I make that decision, I want it to be the right decision and right for everyone. Maybe even I don't realize how difficult of a decision it is or how big of a decision it is. I don't know if I ever will know completely, but I hope I make the right decision."

    Favre doesn't have a timetable for how soon after the season he will make that call. It took him two months after the upset loss to Minnesota in the first round of the NFC playoffs last season to announce he would be coming back for another year.

    Wide receiver Robert Ferguson said Wednesday "it will be a real dark day" in Green Bay when Favre decides to retire.

    The end could be approaching sooner than later.

    "The day will come when I don't play for Green Bay again. That will be a sad time for me. But that day will come," Favre said.

    NOTES

  • WR Donald Driver has 80 receptions this season, four short of his career high, attained last year. With five catches Sunday, Driver would become just the fourth player in team history to finish a season with 85 catches. The others are Sterling Sharpe, who reached the plateau four times, including a team-record 112 in 1993; Robert Brooks; and Javon Walker, who had a team-high 89 last season.

    Driver has 1,103 receiving yards this season, 105 shy of his career high last season.

  • MLB Nick Barnett was credited with eight tackles by the coaching staff during its film review of Sunday's 24-17 loss at Chicago. That puts Barnett's season total at 184 tackles, four more than linebacker Mike Douglass' previous franchise record of 180 in 1981.

  • The Packers are 2-1 against former coach Mike Holmgren and Seattle, with all three meetings taking place in Green Bay. The teams met twice during the 2003 season - the Packers prevailed 35-13 in the regular season and then 33-27 in overtime in an NFC wild-card playoff game. In 1999, Holmgren's first year in Seattle after bolting Green Bay, the Seahawks won 27-7 during the regular season.

  • Under Mike Sherman, who was Holmgren's offensive coordinator with the Seahawks in 1999, the Packers are 4-1 in regular-season finales. They have won two straight. Also, Green Bay has won both games played at home to end the regular season since 2000.

  • First-year Packers general manager Ted Thompson spent the previous five years with Seattle as the Seahawks' vice president of football operations.

  • Sunday's game marks only the second time in franchise history the Packers will play on New Year's Day. They beat Dallas 34-27 at the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1967, to win the NFL championship. Bart Starr threw four touchdown passes. Two weeks later, the Packers manhandled Kansas City 35-10 in the inaugural AFL-NFL championship game, which is commonly referred to as Super Bowl I.

  • The Packers are 3-2 in January games played during the regular season. They've won three straight - 49-24 over Arizona on Jan. 2, 2000; 34-25 at the New York Giants on Jan. 6, 2002; and 31-14 at Chicago on Jan. 2, 2005.

  • Assured of finishing in last place in the NFC North, the Packers' list of opponents for the 2006 season is set.

    The home schedule will include division foes Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota, Arizona and St. Louis from the NFC West, New England and the New York Jets from the AFC East and New Orleans, the last-place finisher in the NFC South.

    The road opponents will be Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota, San Francisco and Seattle from the NFC West, Buffalo and Miami from the AFC East and Philadelphia, which finished last in the NFC East.

  • WR Robert Ferguson said Wednesday that he won't play in Sunday's regular-season finale against Seattle. Ferguson also didn't suit up for the last game after aggravating a torn lateral collateral ligament in his left knee Dec. 19. He sustained the injury Oct. 23, which sidelined him three games. He's re-injured the knee three times since then. "It really doesn't make any sense to go out there and risk tearing it again. For once, I'm trying to be smart about it," said Ferguson, who had just 27 catches for 366 yards and three touchdowns in primarily a starting role after Javon Walker suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.

  • WR Terrence Murphy has been given assurances from one of four specialists he's visited for his bruised spinal cord that he will be able to play again next season. "That's all I wanted to hear," Murphy said Wednesday. The rookie sustained the injury on a helmet-to-helmet hit while returning a kickoff Oct. 3 at Carolina. He's resumed lifting weights and said he should know by March at what point he can get back on the field and participate in the team's off-season activities.

  • OLB Robert Thomas was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. The weakside starter has been on the mend with a strained quadriceps that has sidelined him five of the last six games. Paris Lenon is slated to make his second straight start in Thomas' place Sunday.

  • P Ryan Flinn has earned another opportunity to kick in a game. Flinn, a first-year player signed to the team late last week to replace injured B.J. Sander, averaged 40 yards in three punts during his NFL regular-season debut in the 24-17 loss to Chicago on Sunday.

  • TE David Martin didn't practice Wednesday but is probable to play in Sunday's game. Martin was knocked out of the last game with a concussion.

  • CB Mike Hawkins returned to practice after being out all of last week because of a bruised knee. Hawkins, though, is questionable for Sunday's game. Patrick Dendy replaced him as the nickel back in the last game.

  • CB Al Harris underwent emergency dental work Wednesday and didn't practice. He's not on the injury report.

    BY THE NUMBERS: 176 - NFL single-season-record points produced by Packers Hall of Fame halfback Paul Hornung in 1960. Seattle halfback Shaun Alexander enters Sunday's game at Green Bay with 162 points.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "You go out that tunnel, and I think there has to be an expectation that you go out there to win the game. Maybe because we've never been in this situation before, I don't know how to handle that part of it. But every time I've gone out of that tunnel, my expectation has always been to win the football game, and I don't see that changing a whole lot. I think when the fans come - granted, we haven't done it enough lately here - they expect to see the Packers win, and we owe it to them to give it to them. I have a hard time going out of that tunnel and taking a season game and treating it like a preseason game." - Green Bay coach Mike Sherman, discussing why he will stick with playing his starters in an otherwise meaningless regular-season finale Sunday against Seattle at Lambeau Field.



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