GREEN BAY—All coaches have their favorite recipes for success, but when Mike McCarthy starts talking about what it takes to win division games, it's prudent to listen.
McCarthy is an impressive 28-9 in regular-season NFC North contests as a head coach, a .757 winning percentage that ranks second in the league (behind New England, 31-8, .795) among all teams' division records since 2006.
The Packers enter Sunday's game in Detroit – the first of five division games over the season's final seven weeks – on an eight-game winning streak within the division. The run dates back to the game in Detroit in 2010 when quarterback Aaron Rodgers was knocked out with a concussion.
On Wednesday, McCarthy mentioned three keys to success in division games he's emphasizing with his players this week – turnover differential, third-down conversions and penalties.
Now, the first two are critical components in any NFL contest, but the third one – penalties – is interesting, particularly this week.
"We have a heightened awareness toward being disciplined and playing smart through tough, emotional environments, one like we expect to play in Sunday," McCarthy said.
That was a roundabout way of saying the Packers know all about the Lions' reputation for after-the-whistle activity, the kind that got both Packers cornerback Pat Lee and Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ejected last Thanksgiving at Ford Field.
Familiarity can indeed breed contempt, and McCarthy is spot-on in saying the Packers' discipline has served them well against division opponents.
In sweeping the division last year for the first time in team history and becoming the first NFC North/Central team to do so since the 1987 Bears, the Packers held an eye-popping advantage in the penalty department.
In last year's six division games, the Packers committed less than half as many penalties as their opponents (27 to 57) for less than half as many yards (216 to 452). In one game alone the differential was a whopping nine penalties for 75 yards.
For the record, the other two key categories were decidedly in Green Bay's favor in the 2011 NFC North games, too. The Packers had a better third-down conversion percentage in four of the six games and never lost the turnover battle, coming out ahead four times with two games even.
Whether or not the Packers can continue McCarthy's formula for success in division games will likely determine their fate this season. With the Bears 7-2, the Packers 6-3 and the Vikings 6-4, the NFC North is anyone's for the taking, particularly with the way the schedule shapes up.
As the Packers play five division games from here on out, the Bears and Vikings play four each, and the Lions still have three left.
"The NFL is doing that to keep some of those (division races) interesting, I think," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of the late-season slate. "There's quite a few teams that finish the same way we do.
"It's right there in front of us. We have the opportunity to control our own future here and hopefully we can get it done."
At 4-5, Detroit has the longest odds in the NFC North but can throw itself right back into the mix by beating the Packers on Sunday. Don't think the Packers aren't aware of that, either.
"I'm assuming we're going to get their best shot," receiver James Jones said. "It's in their hometown, a division game, it's going to be a dogfight.
"The division games, where you get to settle it on the field between the division opponents, you can't ask for any better than that. We hold the key to our own destiny, and hopefully we can continue to roll." Additional coverage - Nov. 14