Packers can't let this opportunity get away

Eight years ago, a similar chance was squandered

QB Aaron Rodgers

GREEN BAY – The comparisons to other high-stakes Week 17 showdowns are inevitable.

Like 2010, when the Bears were in the playoffs and the Packers had to win to get in. Or 2013, when the NFC North title was on the line at Soldier Field.

But the real comparison to this regular-season finale for the Packers is 2012.

No, the Packers didn't finish with the Bears that year. But Green Bay had the NFC North wrapped up and was playing for a first-round bye, on the road, against a division rival – in this case, the Vikings – who needed a win to punch a postseason ticket.

What that '12 finale became was a huge opportunity lost, and one the Packers can't afford to let get away this time.

"This is a playoff game for us," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said this week. "That's our mindset. That's how we're going to attack this thing."

That is absolutely the right approach, for multiple reasons.

First, a win to get the NFC's No. 1 seed and the lone bye puts the Packers in the divisional round in two weeks. It's a chance to advance, which is like a playoff game, just without the potential for elimination.

Second, the down-to-the-wire 37-34 defeat at the Metrodome (in a wildly entertaining ballgame during which Vikings running back Adrian Peterson capped an MVP season with 199 rushing yards to go over 2,000 on the year) relegated Green Bay to a rematch with Minnesota in the wild-card round at Lambeau Field the following week. The very same thing could occur in this instance.

If the Packers don't get the bye, they'll be either the No. 2 or 3 seed (and the 2 doesn't get a bye in the new seven-team field). A playoff-bound Bears team would be the 6 or 7. Next weekend, the 2 will host the 7 and the 3 will host the 6, so the Packers can either do their best to eliminate the Bears now, or they might have to turn around and face them again.

That portion worked out OK eight years ago, in part because Vikings QB Christian Ponder had gotten hurt and was a surprise scratch 90 minutes before kickoff for the rematch. Inexperienced backup Joe Webb didn't stand much chance, and the Packers won with a rather lackluster performance.

But then the Packers hit the road to play the 49ers, and it became clear how not getting the bye had severely damaged Green Bay's playoff fortunes. The Metrodome shootout loss had given the No. 2 seed, and the accompanying bye, to San Francisco and the No. 3 to Green Bay (Atlanta had the top spot locked up).

It wasn't just that the divisional-round game was not in the friendly confines of Lambeau, where the Packers hadn't lost that year since the opener (to the 49ers, no less). But by getting the bye, San Francisco kept the Colin Kaepernick read-option run game under wraps, worked on it during the week off, sprung it on an unprepared Green Bay defense in the divisional round, and won in a rout.

It's always been fair to wonder if things might have unfolded differently had the Packers beaten the Vikings in Week 17 to earn the bye. That would have sent Chicago to San Francisco for the wild-card round. If the 49ers had deployed the read-option to beat the Bears and advance, would the Packers have been better prepared to contain it a week later?

Statistically, Kaepernick had averaged just 38 rushing yards in the eight games after he took over the QB post from Alex Smith. Then he bamboozled the Packers for 181 yards on the ground. It was the ultimate playoff surprise.

San Francisco went on to overcome a 17-0 deficit in the NFC title game at top-seeded Atlanta to reach the Super Bowl, so maybe the Packers wouldn't have won the divisional game anyway with the bye and home field. But the point is no one will ever know.

This isn't to suggest that the Seahawks or Saints, who are also in the running for this year's top seed and bye, will put some major tricks up their sleeve during a week off. Or that the Packers will or should do the same. All the potential NFC No. 1's are established teams with veteran QBs. Everyone knows who they are.

But the bye still would be invaluable to rest and refresh. The Packers haven't had an extended break since Week 5, and whether or not players are on the injury report, everyone is banged up this time of year. Any freshness to the legs in January is welcome. A couple of additional practices with the new starting offensive line in the wake of David Bakhtiari's season-ending knee injury, without having to play another game right away, wouldn't hurt either.

Also, this time the stakes are even higher. Only the No. 1 seed gets the bye, so only the No. 1 needs to win just two games to reach the Super Bowl, not three. The No. 1 also hosts the conference championship if it wins the divisional game, and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has yet to play that game in Lambeau Field, having gone 1-3 on the road, losing his last three tries ('14, '16, '19).

The Bears are in what amounts to a do-or-die situation, while the Packers know they have more football ahead regardless. But what's on the line for the Packers doesn't feel any less significant.

"There's a lot at stake for both squads," Rodgers said. "We know what kind of game it's going to be."

Added receiver Davante Adams: "We obviously know what's in front of us."

So don't let history repeat itself.

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