Playoffs Aside, Still Plenty To Play For On Sunday Night

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The Green Bay Packers will know by the time their game with the Chicago Bears begins on Sunday night whether or not they're playing for an NFC Wild Card playoff spot.

And while the hope certainly is that they are, Head Coach Mike McCarthy and his players insist there will be no letdown if they aren't.

That's because even if there is no playoff bid on the line, there's still plenty to play for in the regular season finale at Soldier Field.

Having completed season sweeps of NFC North foes Detroit and Minnesota the past two weeks, the Packers have a chance to finish 5-1 in their division. They could end a three-game losing streak to their arch-rivals and beat a team with a winning record for the first time all season.

They could also finish 8-8 in McCarthy's first year, not only avoiding a losing record but also doubling their win total from 2005 when most outside analysts predicted the Packers might only match their four wins of a year ago.

But perhaps more important than any of the aforementioned accomplishments, the Packers could finish 2006 with four straight victories and go into the off-season with the momentum and positive feelings that looked hard to come by when the team was 4-8 less than a full month ago.

"What better way, if things don't go our way (with the playoffs), than to say, 'Hey, we finished up the season strong. We had a four-game winning streak,'" Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "There's plenty to play for. Any game you play, you play to win. Playoffs or no playoffs, that's the mentality.

"It's just how you finish. It's key for us to continue to keep this upswing and keep going. Now we've got the off-season which is a lot more involved, and you keep building and building, and growing."

There's some precedent to the value of a season-ending winning streak to end a non-playoff season, even here at 1265 Lombardi Ave.

Back in 2000, the Packers were 5-7 and won four straight against all of their then-NFC Central foes. They missed the playoffs at 9-7, but it set the stage for 44 victories and four straight playoff appearances over the next four seasons.

This year, hopefully it's no coincidence the Packers' final three games were against their NFC North brethren. There's no telling whether the carry-over effect from 2000 can be repeated because of potential roster turnover each off-season, but there's bound to be a core of players with that experience to draw from.

"The thing I remember from that year is we were a young team very much like this team, and we had a good group of veterans, and everybody came back that next season," said offensive tackle Mark Tauscher, a rookie in 2000. "It was pretty much the same team that finished that season off. So that plays a lot into it.

"If we make a major change or major facelift again, every year you start your own identity, but we were definitely built off of what happened at the end of that season and that's what we hope to do this year."

McCarthy buys into the history as well. This week he pointed to the Carolina Panthers as another recent example.

{sportsad300}Back in 2002, the Panthers were 3-8 at the start of December. They won four of their last five games to finish a respectable 7-9, and they went on to start 2003 on a five-game winning streak and end that season in the Super Bowl.

So even though it will obviously be disappointing if the Packers are eliminated from the playoff picture before Sunday night's game starts, the motivation is there to chalk up another win.

Of course the Packers will have plenty of time to ponder their playoff fate, with the key Giants game taking place on Saturday night and other potentially important contests kicking off at noon on Sunday, long before the players will be heading to Soldier Field.

As things unfold, it may leave them lamenting those games this season that got away - against New Orleans, St. Louis and Buffalo, in particular - but those thoughts should provide plenty of off-season motivation as well.

"We're going to watch the games because they're on and we have nothing else to do but relax and kick back and watch football," offensive guard Daryn Colledge said. "But we put ourselves in this position. We can't blame anybody but ourselves for having to worry about what else is going to happen.

"We just have to ride it out. The chips are going to fall where they may, and we have to do our job first and foremost. We're worried about beating the Bears."

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