GREEN BAY—The Packers may have won the Super Bowl four years ago as a wild-card team, but make no mistake, this team is gunning for the best possible playoff position.
"Byes are valuable. That's why you fight like crazy to be a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday, six days before the Packers will play the Lions, with the winner taking the NFC North title and earning a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
"Anytime you have a chance to get that week off, I think it's important. I know some people believe in 'keep playing.' We've done both. I think byes are very beneficial. It gives you a better chance to get your team ready. At the end of the day, the best preparation leads to better performance."
The Week 17 scenario is a dramatic one. If the Packers, win, they'll get a week off and be playing at home in the divisional playoff round (Jan. 10-11). If they lose, they'll be going on the road right away as a wild-card team.
Closing the regular season with such a high-stakes game could work to the advantage of the team that wins it. That team will, in a sense, have the best of both worlds – the momentum of a big win heading into the postseason but with an automatic home game on the second weekend.
The last time the Packers had a playoff bye, in 2011, they had the NFC's No. 1 seed locked up prior to Week 17 and rested several starters to avoid possible injuries. That's not how this stretch run is unfolding, and McCarthy likes it.
"Playing in a playoff-type game I think is exactly how you want to go into the playoffs," McCarthy said. "I think it's great that Detroit's and our records are the same and we're playing for the (division) title. I think this is exactly how you'd want it. I know this is the way I'd prefer it."
The Packers and Lions haven't played since Week 3, an extensive gap between the two annual meetings. That leads to more film study than usual for a familiar opponent, and McCarthy had the assistant coaches working on the game plan for the Lions on Monday right away.
Normally Tuesday is game-planning day, but with the players and coaches taking Thursday off for Christmas, the early-week work has been accelerated.
The Packers had a dismal offensive game at Detroit in the teams' first meeting this season, but that was quickly rectified. The defense is the unit that has evolved the most over the course of the season, particularly with linebacker Clay Matthews moving inside to beef up the run defense while still reaching double digit sacks on the year.
"Clay's probably had his best year, in my opinion," McCarthy said. "What he's done, going in to play inside linebacker with not a lot of reps prior to that, I think it speaks volumes.
"Our run defense has taken a huge step here the last few weeks and he's been a big part of that."
The Packers have climbed from last in the league against the run at midseason to 22nd and from the bottom third in total yards allowed to 12th.
The defensive progress has reached a peak of late in keeping Green Bay's last two opponents out of the end zone.
"We're a different defense since the bye week," McCarthy said. "Some of the changes we made, and really, the growth of the players and just the cohesiveness, I think it's really come together. We've put together some good football here."