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[Packers] Packers timing it just right
Green Bay has won five straight since it flopped in its last appearance on 'Monday Night Football'
By Todd McMahon
There was a time, not long ago, when a general consensus had formed that the Green Bay Packers' time was all but up in the 2004 season.
They left a national TV audience equal parts flabbergasted and appalled the evening of Oct. 11. The Tennessee Titans stormed Lambeau Field and battered the Packers into submission by way of a 48-27 defeat, the most points ever surrendered by the home team at its sacred stadium.
Like that, the two-time reigning NFC North champions had sunk to the unfathomable low of being at the bottom of the division with a 1-4 record spun out of a four-game losing streak.
That was the last time the Packers had a co-starring role on ABC's "Monday Night Football." My, how the times have changed in the seven weeks leading up to their return engagement - and there's more to it than the network's catching flak for one of its desperate housewives baring herself to Philadelphia star receiver Terrell Owens in a recent pregame locker-room spoof.
At 8 tonight, the coast-to-coast TV audience will be introduced to a Green Bay team that has taken on a new, albeit familiar identity. All the Packers have been doing since bombing in their last "MNF" episode is win.
They put a five-game winning streak on the line against St. Louis (5-5) at Lambeau Field. At stake for the 6-4 Packers is maintaining a hold on the NFC North lead, a concept that seemed a pipe dream in the wake of the debacle against the Titans.
"We know how it feels to be 1-4. That feels pretty bad. We've been through that, and we don't want to go back there," said right guard Marco Rivera.
No turning, or looking, back is precisely the outlook head coach Mike Sherman drilled into his players' heads Wednesday morning. It was his first meeting with the team since addressing it late last Sunday night, following its gritty 16-13 comeback win at Houston in another prime-time game.
He paralleled what transpired in those four quarters to how the Packers' season has unfolded to date.
A 13-3 deficit through a dismal three quarters mirrored their 1-4 start in the win-loss ledger. "In that game, things weren't looking very good," Sherman reflected.
Lo and behold, the Packers caught fire in the final 15 minutes to score 13 unanswered points, pulling out the victory on Ryan Longwell's 46-yard field goal as time expired. A microcosm of how they've rallied in the past month and a half to string together the five wins.
"The guys hung together throughout the game; they believed in themselves," Sherman continued with the analogy. "You're down 13-3 going into the fourth quarter, and guys battled back. I thought it displayed, as our season has in many ways in my mind, a tremendous amount of mental toughness and character."
Quarterback Brett Favre, who engineered the 32nd game-winning rally from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie in his storied 13-year career with the team, concurred. "That really is a good example of how our season has gone," said Favre, who is set to make his 200th consecutive regular-season start tonight.
"We struggled early, and we could have easily given up. There were times it looked like we were not going to get any breaks, and we found a way to do it."
Judging by the previous two weeks of play, it could be argued that time now is on the Packers' side.
Longwell has proved to be Mr. Clutch by winning the last two games with buzzer-beating field goals, including a 33-yarder for a critical 34-31 victory over visiting Minnesota on Nov. 14. Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud, in 1983, was the last Packers kicker to decide back-to-back wins with a field goal on the final play.
As left guard Mike Wahle acknowledged, "We would rather blow (teams) out, obviously. We would rather be up 30-0 at halftime and throw it into cruise control, so to speak."
No matter how nerve-racking, the Packers are getting the job done to keep in step atop the division with Minnesota, which improved to 7-4 with a win over Jacksonville on Sunday, their current lot surely beats the path toward destruction they were on at 1-4.
It would be natural to surmise that they would be coming into tonight's game with a chip on their collective shoulder, determined to make amends for their embarrassing performance on the home turf last time out in the company of broadcasters Al Michaels, John Madden and Michele Tafoya.
"You can't make up for it," Wahle asserted. "I'm not concerned about that (Titans) game at all. The fortunate or unfortunate thing about football is you have 16 games to play. You don't get any of them back.
"When you lose one, especially at home, it hurts. But, we're not looking in the past; we're looking forward. We still have some good things we can accomplish with this season."
Saying "it would be out of character for me to necessarily go back to the past, whether it's good or bad," the motivational speaker in Sherman has deliberately avoided in the past week any reference to his team's Monday night meltdown last month. Partly out of fear that, if he were to remind the players of it, "you would be living with ghosts out there on that field."
The Packers are concerning themselves only with the Rams, a team that can be scary in its own right.
St. Louis is desperate for a win as it tries to stay in contention for a postseason berth. Despite losing three of their last four games, the Rams can reclaim the NFC West lead with a win tonight. Seattle, which has lost twice to the Rams, dropped to 6-5 when it was hammered at home by Buffalo on Sunday.
Possessing arguably the most dynamic pass-catching duo in the league with Isaac Bruce (58 receptions) and Torry Holt (53), the Rams figure to attack the Packers' 23rd-ranked pass defense. The Packers will have no choice but to put gradually improving rookie cornerback Ahmad Carroll on one of the top-flight receivers.
Meanwhile, the Rams' 29th-rated rush defense could catch a break if Pro Bowl halfback Ahman Green is sidelined because of sprained rib cartilage. Green didn't practice the entire week and is questionable to play. Najeh Davenport would make his first pro start, though he's less than 100 percent because of a strained hamstring.
"In the situation we were in this last game, we came out on top throwing (the football) 50 times. If that's what we have to do, we will," Wahle said. "But, obviously, we would prefer a more balanced attack."
Incredibly, the Packers have rolled up the victories despite a stark imbalance in the turnover department. Their takeaway/giveaway ratio is minus-four during the five-game winning streak, and they've lost the TO battle the last three games - minus-two at Washington, minus-one vs. Minnesota and minus-two at Houston.
Having not come up with a fumble since their Week 2 loss to Chicago and with only two fumble recoveries on the season, the Packers rank 28th in the 32-team league at minus-13 for the takeaway/giveaway ratio. One spot ahead is St. Louis at minus-11.
If it's reasonable to think some give-and-take could be in the offing tonight, the Packers will be content simply with concluding this national TV appearance by enhancing what has been a successful time continuum the past seven weeks.
They're not looking back because, as Sherman has cautioned them, "the true test will be in the future."
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LONG LIVE MIKE MARTZ
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