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Monday, November 29, 2004
The Stretch Run Begins!
by Mark Quarderer
The MNF game versus the Rams begins a stretch run of six games which will define the 2005 Packers. After recovering from an abysmal 1-4 start, the Packers now find themselves on a five game win streak with a 6-4 record and a real shot at the playoffs in the relative mediocrity of the NFC.
I think that after the 1-4 start, few Packer fans envisioned an eleven win season and a divisional title, but it is with the Packers grasp if they can put it together during the stretch run.
History, in a sense, is on their side, even if the strength of schedule is not. During Sherman's tenure in Green Bay, the Packers have gone 16-3 in games played after Thanksgiving. Thanks to a scheduling anomaly, the Packers play six of their games after that date this year, meaning if they play to form they have a chance to win four or five and that would leave them with a ten or eleven win season, a playoff slot, and a possible division title.
The Rams of 2004 are no longer "The Greatest Show on Turf". Marshall Faulk is sharing time in the backfield with an impressive newcomeer, Stephen Jackson. Warner is gone and now it's the error prone Marc Bulger running the show. But it is the defense which has slipped the most.....the current group of injury plagued defenders is among the worst in the NFL in both yards and points.
Following the Ram game, the Packers journey to Philadelphia to play the best team in the NFC. The Packers will surely be underdogs needing to play their best game if they expect to walk away with a win over the Eagles.
If there is a soft spot in the stretch run schedule, it comes the following week at home against Detroit. Although the Lions are improved in Mariucci's second year, they still struggle to establish the run or win on the road.
The Packers follow that with their last home game of the year against a Jacksonville team that started out the season well but have slipped to a 6-5 record. Byron Leftwich has shown some remarkable playmaking abilities, and the Jaguar defense has played well, but you'd have to think that the Packers would be favored in Wisconsin in late December over a Florida team.
And that brings us to the game at Minnesota. I think that if the Packers are going to win the NFC North they'll have to win this game. Minnesota has an easier schedule than the Packers during the remaining stretch and are unlikely to be more than one game behind the Packers when the teams meet in the Dumptydome.
And then the season closes out in Chicago in a game which will either mean everything to a Packer team trying to win the division, or nothing much to a Packer team assured of a wild card spot, or everything in the world to a Bear team that may still have an outside shot at the last playoff spot.
So......in the remaining 6 games (3 at home, 3 on the road), the Packers will probably be favored four times and an underdog twice (Philadelphia and Minnesota). The Packers will need to win at least four of the six, including the Minnesota game, to have a shot at the division title, but probably a 3-3 stretch is still good enough to get them into the playoffs.
The defense has looked improved against some of the weaker offenses, but the Rams and the Eagles next week will certainly put them to the test. The offense still struggles to find consistency, scoring 35 one week and then struggling to put up three points in three quarters the next. They will also be tested by some pretty decent defensive teams in Philadelphia and by Jacksonville.
Both units are going to have to put their "A" game on display during the stretch run. Injuries are a factor, but at this point in the season everybody is hurt and you just have to go out and play anyway. Had the Packers taken care of business earlier in the season against the Bears and Giants they'd have a little breathing room, but they didn't and they don't.
You have to give Sherman some credit for turning this around after the Tennessee game. But the job isn't done. If he works his customary late season magic and finishes with 11 wins, he'll probably manage to hang onto both of his hats. But if the team stumbles down the stretch and is one and done in the playoffs, there'll be a renewed clamor for his removal from one or both jobs.