Game Review: Division Title Is First Step

The 2007 NFC North Division Champion T-shirts looked good. So did the hats. And winning that division title felt especially good to Green Bay’s veteran players who had tasted success before but had waited to savor it again. - More Audio | Video | Packers-Raiders Game Center


DT Corey Williams holds up an NFC North champions hat immediately following Sunday's 38-7 victory over Oakland.

The 2007 NFC North Division Champion T-shirts looked good. So did the hats.

And winning that division title felt especially good to Green Bay's veteran players who had tasted success before but had waited to savor it again.

The Packers wrapped up their first NFC North title since 2004 with a resounding 38-7 win over the Oakland Raiders in front of 70,828 at Lambeau Field on Sunday to improve to 11-2. For a team that had become accustomed to first-place status, with division crowns three straight years from 2002-04, to get back there is especially gratifying after two postseason-less years.

"When you lose that title, you don't know how that feels," receiver Donald Driver said. "And a lot of guys in this locker room never experienced that. So it's good to have that title back."

Especially after a stretch of 20 losses in 28 games following that 2004 title, before the strong finish last December showed signs of what might be to come in 2007.

"The real sweetness comes in the fact that the last two years have been a struggle," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "We've had to fight back to get to this place.

"My first three years here, I just kind of expected it, that's kind of what we did, and then you saw that didn't come so easy. I think especially the guys who have been around here for a while, this is definitely a sweet feeling to be back in this position and back on top of the NFC North."

The Packers got back there Sunday with standout performances in nearly all areas.

The defense surrendered a season-low 233 total yards, 1 yard less than Kansas City gained back on Nov. 4. Al Harris and Atari Bigby each had an interception, and Oakland converted just 3-of-13 third downs.

The defense also posted two fourth-down stops. The first one came early as safety Nick Collins made a great read on a naked pitch to Justin Fargas (15 carries, 57 yards) on fourth-and-1 near midfield in the first quarter, and the diving tackle dropped Fargas for a 2-yard loss.

Meanwhile the offense combined the quick strike with a pound-it-out ground game that should prove valuable during December and January. Quarterback Brett Favre showed no ill effects from the elbow and shoulder injuries sustained last week in Dallas and was sharp as usual (15-of-23, 266 yards, two TDs, one interception, 115.5 rating).

He had two big-play touchdowns in the second half, hitting Greg Jennings for an 80-yard score when the second-year receiver outjumped cornerback Stanford Routt on a deep ball, and connecting with Donald Lee for a 46-yard TD for the game's final points.

But more important, on an 18-degree day the offense found a cold-weather running back, as Ryan Grant pounded his way to a career-high 156 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries. Grant racked up 45 yards the first four times he touched the ball on the game's opening series and set the tone by knocking some Oakland defenders backwards early.

"It's more important that in these games as it gets cold you're able to pound the rock, eat up the time, keep our defense fresh, and really control the momentum of the game," center Scott Wells said. "When you're able to run the ball, you're able to do that."

And then there were the special teams, which scored two touchdowns, both by second-year pro Will Blackmon for his first professional scores.

Subbing for Charles Woodson (who played on defense, but not special teams) on punt return, Blackmon caught a line-drive punt by Shane Lechler on the dead run and raced 57 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to make it 14-0.

His other touchdown came on punt coverage in the third quarter. Oakland punt returner Tim Dwight took a big hit from Jason Hunter and coughed up the ball at his own 11, and Packers fullback John Kuhn inadvertently kicked it toward the goal line. After a mini-scramble in the end zone, Blackmon finally fell on it, giving the Packers a 31-7 lead and removing any doubt about the outcome.

{sportsad300}Combining the defensive effort, big plays on offense and scores on special teams was the perfect recipe for bouncing back from last week's loss at Dallas. The Raiders were briefly in the game on Jerry Porter's 25-yard TD catch with 26 seconds left in the first half to make it 14-7, but the Packers dominated from too many angles for this to be a contest.

"We tried to get on top of them quick, fast, get them kind of down on themselves," Jennings said. "When you can get plays in the special teams aspect, when you get explosive plays, ... Nothing comes easy, but when they look like they're easy, they're quick, that hurts an opposing team's confidence."

The Packers are not lacking for that and nearly got another boost by coming thisclose to tying Dallas for the top record in the NFC. But the Cowboys (12-1) rallied from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Detroit 28-27 on Jason Witten's 16-yard TD catch with 18 seconds left.

Still, the Packers moved another step closer to clinching a first-round bye and home game in the second round of the playoffs. They remained two games ahead of NFC West champion Seattle (9-4) with three weeks to go in the race for the No. 2 seed (NFC South leader Tampa Bay fell another game back with a loss at Houston and is now 8-5), and with the division title in hand, assuring their best possible playoff position is now the task in front of them.

"There's not too much celebration," Jennings said of the NFC North crown. "That's one goal we have and we've achieved it, so it's time to move on to the next, and that's the mentality of this team. We're not overly excited, honestly. We're going to enjoy this, and it's a big step from where we've come from last year. It's exciting, but at the same time we want to be in Arizona come February. That's the big, big goal."

In other words, no one is about to relax.

"It doesn't take any pressure off at all," Harris said. "We've still got to win out. The playoffs are another season, and we're still concerned with this season."

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