Packers Ignore Division Race


This Sunday, with a little help from the New York Jets, the Packers could clinch their first division title in five years with a win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Should they do so, they'd lock up their division faster than any NFL team since the inception of the 16-game schedule in 1978. But even if the NFC North crown was among the Packers' goals going into the season, it hasn't been in their thoughts this week.

"It means absolutely nothing," center Mike Flanagan said. "It may matter in Week 16, but it doesn't matter now. We've got the Minnesota Vikings we have to play. Just because we clinch doesn't mean we can't lose the next six in a row.

"It doesn't do anything for us in getting to the goal we ultimately want to achieve, which would be in San Diego. Really, (clinching the title) would just be an afterthought."

In fact, it really can't be anything more than that. Even if the Packers win Sunday, they'll be hours away from learning the outcome of the Jets-Detroit Lions game, which will be kicking off around the time the Packers and Vikings are closing up shop.

For the Packers to officially clinch, they must not only win, but have the Lions lose. And news of the latter won't come in time for any post-game locker room festivities.

Such celebrations -- if at all -- would probably be muted anyway. The Packers are well aware that winning a division title this week would only be evidence of past success, not a guarantee of any future excellence.

Plus, there's an argument to be made that being named the NFC North champions this early in the season might actually be a bit of a burden.

"The better we play, the better our record gets, the bigger the bull's-eye right in the middle of our chests gets," Flanagan said. "Everyone wants to be the best in this league. In order to do that, you have to knock off the best. And right now people say we're playing well, so there's a big bull's-eye."

Count Minnesota among the teams that would desperately like to derail the Packers. At 2-7, the Vikings might look like an inviting opponent, but the Packers know better.

In the recent history of the rivalry, records have meant little, especially in the Metrodome, which has been as welcoming to the Packers as a barbed wire fence.

"This obviously hasn't been the season they would like," quarterback Brett Favre said of the Vikings, "but regardless if they were 8-1 and we were 2-7, it doesn't matter when we play those guys over there. History lays that out for you . . . It's been the thorn in our side."

In the Brett Favre era, the Packers are only 2-8 in Minneapolis. That includes a 1996 loss, when the team went 13-3 en route to the Super Bowl championship.

It's a track record that makes discounting the Vikings difficult. And the Packers refuse to take any team for granted.

"When we play teams, we get their best," Favre said. "If we're not up to that challenge, whether it be home or away, then we will be beat. It's as simple as that.

"Yeah, we're 8-1 and on top of the league and all that stuff, but believe me, we're not that much better than every team out there . . . We're pleased with where we are, but I know what it's like to play in Minnesota. I'm not going in there thinking we're 8-1 and untouchable, because that's not the case."

If any of his teammates need a history lesson on how little records mean on the road in the NFL, Favre could provide it. He hasn't forgotten about what happened in 1997 -- another Super Bowl season -- when an 8-2 Packers team fell 41-38 to an Indianapolis Colts team that was winless through 10 games.

Winners of five straight, the Packers moved out to an early 14-3 lead, but the Colts never surrendered.

"I think everyone after the first quarter was (thinking), 'Here we go again,'" Favre said. "Before we knew it, we had a couple turnovers, a couple penalties, they had a couple big plays, and it was over. And we didn't know how to respond to it.

"I think we were a better football team then -- and a more experienced football team -- than we are now, and we didn't know how to deal with it. Maybe a little bit of inexperience and not knowing any better can work in our favor (this week). We'll see.

"This is a game that we obviously need to win for a lot of reasons. More than anything, it's just a place that we haven't had a lot of success in."

A win Sunday would say a lot about this Packers team. Considering the demons of past visits to Minneapolis, a possible NFC North title seems like the least of it.

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