Packers Look To Seize Opportunity

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Inside the stadium bowl at Lambeau Field and out in the parking lot, the celebration of the Green Bay Packers' second consecutive NFC North Championship was still in its early stages.

But already, Packers guard Marco Rivera was trying to move on.

"Feels pretty good," Rivera said Sunday night shortly after the Packers' 31-3 victory over the Denver Broncos when a reporter commented on his 2003 NFC North Champions hat. "I wore one last year. But we all know what happened last year."

In a word: disappointment.

Riddled with injuries, the 2002 Packers didn't catapult off a 12-4 season en route to a magical playoff run, but limped off a 42-17 loss to the New York Jets in the regular-season finale to suffer a one-sided 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in what marked the franchise's first post-season loss at Lambeau Field.

"This week it's going to be kind of different," Rivera said, looking ahead to this weekend's Wild Card match-up with the Seattle Seahawks.

"We're in a different place than we were last year. Last year we're coming back from that Jets loss ... it was like a knife through the heart. This year our backs were against the wall. We had to win and we did that. We're in the playoffs and we're in a lot better position."

It took all of 16 games for the Packers to be able to say they're in a better position than they were a season ago, but they most certainly can do that now.

The Packers' 2003 season started at 0-1, moved to 3-4 by the bye week and stood at just 6-6 heading into December with four games to play. But with a new year just around the corner, the Packers enter the playoffs not on a down note as in 2002, but riding a four-game winning streak.

Something that's helping them to be not just stronger in body, but stronger in mind.

"I just think you have to be fresh," GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman said Monday. "Last year, and my memory is pretty accurate on how I felt about last year, we were stressed and strained because of the amount of injuries we had.

"I don't think there was anything in the game or the game-management or the scheme that I thought was lacking (in the loss to Arizona), it's just that we limped into the playoffs and got booted out pretty quickly ... We didn't talk about injuries, we didn't make excuses for it and we never will, but it was a strain."

Actually, it was more than that.

The 2002 Packers entered the post-season without three of the players that started the regular-season opener: tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher and safety Darren Sharper.

They had a wide receiver (Donald Driver) playing with one good arm, a quarterback (Brett Favre) playing with one good leg and a center (Mike Flanagan) lined up at tackle.

They were without their top backup running back (Najeh Davenport), were on their third punt returner of the season (Eric Metcalf) and went on to lose their starting nose tackle (Gilbert Brown) in the first quarter.

And because of all that, Sherman said that when he walked through the Packers locker room in the final weeks of the 2002 season, he didn't see the energy and buzz that he says exists in the team now, but instead saw exhaustion.

"When you go through the locker room this whole month there's a lot of talking," Sherman said. "I didn't sense that last year. It was like, I'm spending more time in the training room talking to guys. This year I'm spending more time in the locker room talking to guys. There's a difference there."

Of course, healthy or not, momentum or not, the Packers still have to make something out of this season's playoff opportunity that they have fought so hard to earn in order to make it worthwhile.

Since becoming head coach in 2000, Sherman's teams are 16-2 in the month of December, but there's been just one playoff victory.

Because of the way the 2003 Packers responded down the stretch, Sherman said that he wouldn't necessarily have considered the season a failure had tie-breaker scenarios prevented them from going to the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

But now that the Packers are into the post-season, they still must decide what to do with the destiny they once again control.

"There's a bunch of types of teams right now," Sherman said Monday. "Some teams are just happy to be in the playoffs. Other teams want to make hay in the playoffs. Some people want to go to the Super Bowl. Some people want to win the Super Bowl.

"I hope we're the last team. A team that's excited about being in the playoffs, feels like it belongs in the playoffs and will do everything it can to win the Super Bowl."

If they're not, the similarities between the 2002 and 2003 seasons might go beyond the championship headwear.

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