Division Play Gets Underway

There’s a little different atmosphere around Lambeau Field this week, and it’s not just because the Packers are 3-0 for the first time in six years, or that Brett Favre is on the verge of breaking the NFL’s all-time TD pass record. It’s because Sunday is the first NFC North clash of 2007. A division game, one that in the standings essentially counts double, because with a win you’re also tagging a close rival with a loss. - More Audio | Video | Packers-Vikings Game Center

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Packers LB Brady Poppinga sacks Vikings QB Brad Johnson during last year's game at the Metrodome, forcing a fumble.

There's a little different atmosphere around Lambeau Field this week, and it's not just because the Packers are 3-0 for the first time in six years, or that quarterback Brett Favre is on the verge of breaking the NFL's all-time touchdown pass record.

It's because Sunday is the first NFC North clash of 2007. A division game, one that in the standings essentially counts double, because with a win you're also tagging a close rival with a loss.

"It's more intense, there's more urgency," linebacker Brady Poppinga said of the week of preparation for Sunday's showdown with the Minnesota Vikings. "You know they're going to come with their best game, so it's important and imperative that we come with our best game.

"It's going to be a dogfight until the end, one of those games that will be decided in the last minute of the fourth quarter. So yeah, it's a little different feeling around here knowing the nature of this game."

The Packers were as good as any team in the NFL last year in division games. Green Bay went 5-1 against the NFC North, matching the top division record shared by five other teams (Carolina, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego and Baltimore).

The Packers enter this season on a five-game winning streak in the division, having lost last year's season opener to the Bears before posting wins in Detroit and Minneapolis, and then sweeping all three division opponents in the final three weeks of the season.

The reason for the success within the division is somewhat difficult to pinpoint. There's certainly a level of familiarity, but that cuts both ways. And the Packers, Lions and Vikings all had first-time head coaches last season, so while there was knowledge of the opponents' personnel, there were some changes in schemes.

But then the familiarity was certainly there the second time through the schedule, and that's when the Packers were playing their best football in 2006.

"There's two ways to look at it," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "As a common opponent, either they know everything you're going to do and they stymie it, or the other way to look at it is you really know each other's weaknesses and you're able to exploit them. I think we were able to do that at some level last year."

The Packers were also able to win the tight games in the division. While close losses outside the division to New Orleans, St. Louis and Buffalo damaged the team's playoff hopes, Green Bay's four wins over Detroit and Minnesota were by a combined 23 points, or less than six points per contest.

Boding well for this season, the Packers have shown the ability to win close games already. A field goal with 2 seconds left beat Philadelphia in Week 1, 21 fourth-quarter points helped down the Giants in Week 2, and two touchdowns in the final 2 minutes were needed to knock off San Diego last week.

"We talk every day that games are going to come down to the fourth quarter, and that's when we have to play our best football," receiver James Jones said. "That's what it comes down to. I'm sure when the fourth quarter comes, guys' heads are all in the game, and that's when it counts. That's the quarter you need to make the most plays."

The last time the Packers had a five-game winning streak in their own division was in 2004, but it was immediately snapped with a Wild Card playoff loss to Minnesota. The last time a division winning streak stretched longer than five games, it began with five NFC Central wins in 2001 and carried over to three NFC North wins to start 2002.

{sportsad300}The Packers would love nothing better than to challenge that streak, particularly with division games the next two weeks, at Minnesota and then home vs. Chicago in prime time.

With the Packers 3-0 and the Vikings 1-2 (with a division loss to Detroit), Minnesota is the more desperate team because a loss would drop the Vikings three games behind the Packers in the division race just a month into the season.

"This is real big for us," Vikings defensive tackle Pat Williams said. "We've got to win. We lose this game, we're in a hole, and our backs will be against the wall, way against the wall. So we've got to win this week. It's a must."

While the implications of a loss wouldn't be as dire for the Packers, the team isn't thinking along those lines. Getting off to a fast start within the division is carrying a similar importance to getting off to a fast start for the season, which the Packers emphasized all summer and have seen come to fruition thus far.

"I think it's huge regardless, because obviously in the end division games have an extra special meaning, particularly for later-down-the-road things, the postseason, things like that," Kampman said. "Obviously you always want to take care of your division first.

"That's our focus, that's our mentality, and we know we'll see their best shot, and we're preparing to give them ours as well."

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