For four straight weeks coming out of the bye, the Green Bay Packers made running the ball look easy.
Starting with the road win at Minnesota, the Packers averaged nearly 6 yards per carry and posted an average of 233 rushing yards per game. But as unstoppable as Ahman Green & Co. seemed at the time, GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman never thought the ground game was invincible.
"I always knew when we were ripping off the yardage that you're going to hit a wall in the run game," Sherman said this week. "People are going to do something to try and stop that part of the game if it's that dominant."
Of course trying and doing are two different things. And it wasn't until the Detroit Lions threw a wrench in the works Thanksgiving Day that the Packers' running attack showed any signs of slowing down.
But when the Packers followed that 52-yard performance -- on a season-low 16 carries -- with a 97-yard effort last week against the Chicago Bears, it wasn't so much a question of whether the Packers could be stopped, but whether they could regain their previous form.
And, had opposing defenses found a way to stop the running game, or were the Packers just stopping themselves?
According to the Packers this week, it's been a little of both.
"We can play better, there's no doubt about that," offensive guard Mike Wahle said. "There are some plays that we're so used to running successfully ... (Against Chicago) we kept hammering them and they weren't working. And they should be working.
"It's on us. It just comes down to a guy here or a guy there making a play on us. I think as an entire offensive team we just have to execute those runs, be a little more physical."
Fellow guard Marco Rivera said that the Packers' running game should be successful even if teams stack the box with nine players to try and stop it.
Against Chicago, Rivera contends that the Packers "left a lot of yardage on the field" because one missed assignment often led to the unraveling of entire plays.
This week, Packers offensive linemen have preached about increasing their attention to detail, something they hope will allow the running game to regain its effectiveness, even if the days of 200-yard rushing games could be over.
"We just want to win," Rivera said. "It would be nice to get (200 yards rushing), but that's not our main concern. Our main concern is going out there and playing well. Running the ball, passing the ball, we just want to win against San Diego and see where that keeps bettering our chances for the playoffs."
For the second weekend in a row, the Packers aren't quite sure who is going to start at quarterback for the opposition.
Last week the Chicago Bears waited to announce whether Kordell Stewart or Chris Chandler would make the start, and this week the San Diego Chargers are staying mum about Doug Flutie and Drew Brees.
A 10-year veteran, Flutie has been the starter since the second weekend of November and has quarterbacked the Chargers to two of their three wins. But rumors out of San Diego suggest that head coach Marty Schottenheimer might return the reins to Brees, who at 24 years-old has a greater chance to help the team in future seasons than the 41-year-old Flutie.
"We don't normally employ spies at practice, so I really couldn't tell you (who will start at quarterback)," Sherman joked Friday. "We're preparing for both quarterbacks, just like we prepared for both quarterbacks against Chicago."
Armchair experts seem to believe that Flutie gives the Chargers the greatest chance to win this weekend, but while impressed by the veteran's "savvy," Sherman doesn't take Brees lightly.
"Brees hasn't played in a little while, but I think he's a heck of a quarterback," Sherman said. "He's just young, and he's the type of guy that can come in and get hot."
Brees actually has a higher completion percentage in 395 more attempts than Flutie this season -- 57 percent to 54 -- but Flutie has thrown nine touchdowns compared to only four interceptions, while Brees has only seven touchdowns to go with 12 picks.
Sherman said the base of the Packers' defensive scheme will remain the same this week regardless of who is at quarterback. The only major difference will be in how the Packers attempt to pressure the passer.
"You have a scheme that you're going to use to defend (running back) LaDainian Tomlinson and other players that they have as well," Sherman said. "It's really more, how are you going to rush the quarterback and what type of techniques, or what types of stunts or blitzes, are you going to employ?"
Win Or Improve?
For teams already out of the playoff hunt, it's already time to start thinking about 2004.
And in the case of the 3-10 Chargers, that could mean starting the younger Brees over the gray-haired Flutie this weekend.
But if that might sound like good news to some Packers fans -- those who subscribe to the theory that Flutie actually gives the Chargers the best chance to win at this moment -- in other games this weekend, the look-to-the-future method could be detrimental to the Packers' present.
In Chicago, rookie quarterback Rex Grossman has been named the starter for this weekend's game against the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings. And with the Packers needing help from Vikings opponents in order to have a chance of winning the division, that's not necessarily an ideal situation.
Asked Friday about the practice of out-of-contention teams using late-season games to give experience to younger players, Sherman had just one concern.
"Personally, I think you have to play to win the football game the best way you can," he said. "At the same time, if in fact you are eliminated from the playoffs, if you can play a younger player that you know is going to be part of your next season, I don't see anything wrong with that.
"But I think you have to play every game to win and put yourself in the best opportunity to win and don't ever compromise that."
In fairness to the Bears, Chicago is only 5-8 this season with either Chandler or Stewart as their quarterback.
Of course, that's five more wins than Grossman has in his career.