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Crucial Stretch Will Set Team's Direction


Of course Green Bay would much rather be 5-3 right now than 4-4, but regardless of the outcome last Sunday in Tampa, the Packers have to forget it as they enter a crucial stretch to their 2009 season.

With two home games coming up against NFC playoff contenders Dallas and San Francisco, followed by a Thanksgiving contest at division rival Detroit, the Packers play three games in a span of 12 days that will take this .500 team one of three ways.

--The Packers could quiet some doubters and establish themselves as bona-fide playoff material in the NFC.

--They could fall hopelessly out of the race and begin playing out the string.

--Or they could continue their inconsistent, up-and-down ways and still be hoping to get their act completely together while putting part of their playoff fate in the hands of others.

Naturally, the latter two scenarios are the least desirable but in order to avoid them, the Packers know they must start playing up to the capabilities they believe they have.

"It's 'A-game season' and that's the way we have to approach it," receiver Greg Jennings said. "From here on out in my opinion it's must-wins. Not just Sunday. The 49ers are coming in next week. This three-game stretch in a short amount of time is going to be huge for our ballclub, so we need all three of them."

It starts this Sunday against a Dallas team that was .500 four games ago but has ripped off four straight wins to take over first place in the NFC East at 6-2. After shaky losses in the season's first month to the New York Giants and Denver Broncos, the Cowboys have put together a stretch of solid, consistent play the Packers need right now but have yet to produce thus far.

In order to put together their own strong run, the Packers have to use the frustrating loss last Sunday to a previously winless Tampa Bay team as a galvanizing force, not a destabilizing one.

"We have to make sure we come together as a ballclub," Jennings said. "If we don't do that, our season will dwindle away. We've worked too hard to let a few losses shatter our season."

The team seems determined to take the better path. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said as much on Wednesday when he answered a question about whether the team feels a sense of urgency.

"Unfortunately I feel like we do now, but it's tough because you don't ever want to lose to get that sense of urgency," Rodgers said. "But that's sometimes how it works.

"We're an urgent 4-4. We realize the urgency associated with the last eight games. We have a good stretch right here. We've got two home games and a Thanksgiving game. Three games in 12 days, and it's an important time for our football team."

With so much packed into the next two weeks, Head Coach Mike McCarthy has made some adjustments to the team's schedule with an eye toward smarter and more efficient practices that accomplish the necessary work but allow the players proper rest and recovery time. McCarthy annually goes to a "winter schedule" at some point in the latter half of the season, and that started on Wednesday.

"The head coach has to coach better, the coaches have to coach better, the players have to play better, and we have to win games," McCarthy said. "We're going to pour everything that we have into winning at home against the Cowboys. That's our focus."

So is responding properly to adversity, which had been a strength of this team until last week.

Following a tough home loss in Week 2 to Cincinnati, the team bounced back with a road win at St. Louis. Then after the Monday night loss in Minnesota, the Packers used the bye week well and emerged from it with two straight wins over Detroit and Cleveland.

{sportsad300}But following the second Minnesota defeat, the response was a roller-coaster performance in Tampa that ended with a fourth-quarter meltdown and a loss no one could have fathomed when the team was 4-2 heading into November.

Now for the third time this season the Packers are facing the prospect of falling below .500 with another loss, and the thought of a losing record doesn't sit well with anyone.

"I think this will be a good week to show what we're made of," kicker Mason Crosby said. "We're still working hard, and we know we have the talent and the guys in this room to make a little run here and still get in the playoffs."

That's not phony, for-the-cameras optimism either. The players aren't blind to the situation they've put themselves in during a season that began with so much promise.

"Believe me, we know the importance of it," defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. "We're not at all trying to downplay the situation. We're 4-4 right now. It's not where we expected we would be or where we wanted to be, but it's where we're at. It's still very possible to turn this thing around."

But all the talk becomes nothing more than that if the focus, pride and work ethic behind it don't produce the desired result this Sunday, and in the coming weeks.

"You're never going to wave the white flag in the first place, but there's still a lot of football left," Jenkins said. "We're only one game back from the wild-card spot. A lot can happen from that standpoint. We just have to focus on our end of it and make sure that we win games. If we win games, everything else will work itself out."

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