Green Bay is not the surprise champion of two years ago nor the juggernaut of last year, but it's peaking.
So what exactly is the secret to playoff success?
The Green Bay Packers might not be certain.
After all, they were barely a .500 team in 2010 ... until they won their final two regular-season games to sneak in as the No. 6 seed in the NFC. Despite numerous injuries, they ran the table to win the Super Bowl.
Last year, on the other hand, the Packers were 15-1 and well-rested after a first-round playoff bye. And they got seven more months of rest after the fourth-seeded New York Giants, headed for a Super Bowl title themselves, upset the Packers 37-20 in the playoffs.
"You can't have one facet of your game that's not operating at full strength," said Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, clearly not forgetting that Green Bay was the NFL's highest-scoring team in 2011 -- and the worst defensive team, in terms of yards allowed. "It's one of the things that goes unnoticed when you are working your way into the playoffs, and hitting that momentum and hitting your stride late in the season. We've had two [consecutive] impressive victories on the defensive side, and that's what we needed."
The Packers (11-4) aren't the struggling qualifier they were in 2010, nor are they the dominant offensive machine they were in 2011. But a victory Sunday would mean a first-round bye and, with the Vikings almost certainly needing a win to make the playoffs, stakes are awfully high.
"We couldn't ask for a better final regular-season game," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's a playoff game as far as how we're looking at it, and I'm sure that's how they're looking at it. To go on the road in this kind of atmosphere, tough opponent, rival opponent, division game ... couldn't ask for much more."
The Packers' road to a possible No. 2 seed has been smooth since a 2-3 start. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL MVP last season when he had a record 122.5 passer rating, had another remarkable year, considering his receiving corps has been tattered because of injuries. Rodgers has 35 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions for a 106.2 passer rating, but his yardage has dropped. Last year, he had 343 completions for 4,643 yards. This year, he also has 343 completions ... for 3,930 yards.
Lately the Packers have been successful on the ground -- five consecutive games with 100 or more yards -- to take some pressure off Rodgers, who has been sacked 46 times. And Randall Cobb has become the first player with more than 900 yards receiving and 900 yards returning kicks in an NFL season.
But defense, as Matthews pointed out, has been the Packers' most improved area. Last year's gaudy record was fueled by Rodgers, and the Packers were last in the league in pass defense, not a recipe for a repeat Super Bowl title. They are 12th in pass defense this season, and 10th overall. Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward (six interceptions) has helped, especially in the absence of Charles Woodson (broken collarbone), but McCarthy said returning players are just plain having stronger seasons.
"We've just gotten better individually," McCarthy said. "Guys have stepped up."
With a lot on the line Sunday, both McCarthy and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier are happiest that their teams are peaking now.
"Everybody that plays this game wants to play their best football of the year in the fourth quarter [of the season]," McCarthy said. "It goes back to what you do early in the season, playing a number of guys, having a number of packages, playing more players, having more guys ready.
"That's been our plan, and it has worked out pretty good the past 10 weeks."
Said Matthews: "We'd love to get that No. 2 seed. For the Vikings, with their playoff hopes, it's a do-or-die situation. As far as getting momentum for the playoffs, well, this game will have a playoff-like environment."
|East Tenn St||64||FINAL|
|Fla Gulf Coast||69|
|Sam Houston St||71|
|UC Santa Barbara||86|
|New Mexico St||81|
|Stephen F Austin||83|
|SE Missouri St||76||FINAL|
|Cal State Fullerton||44|
|Long Beach State||83||FINAL|
|Sam Houston St||93|
|Stephen F Austin||72|
|East Tenn St||74||FINAL|
|(13) North Carolina||69|
|New Mexico St||56||FINAL|
|Long Beach St||49|
|Cal State Fullerton||72||FINAL|
|UC Santa Barbara||60||FINAL|
|Aug 9 - vs. Houston||7 pm||X||27-13|
|Aug 16 - at Buffalo||6 pm||X||20-16|
|Aug 25 - at San Francisco||7 pm||X||34-14|
|Aug 29 - vs. Tennessee||7 pm||X||24-23|
|2013 regular season|
|Sep 8 - at Detroit||Noon||X||34-24|
|Sep 15 - at Chicago||Noon||X||31-30|
|Sep 22 - vs. Cleveland||Noon||X||31-27|
|Sep 29 - vs. Pittsburgh (in London)||Noon||X||34-27|
|Oct 6 - Bye|
|Oct 13 - vs. Carolina||Noon||X||35-10|
|Oct 21 - at. NY Giants||7:40 pm||X||23-7|
|Oct 27 - vs. Green Bay||7:30 pm||X||44-31|
|Nov 3 - at Dallas||Noon||X||27-23|
|Nov 7 - vs. Washington||7:25 pm||X||34-27|
|Nov 17 - at Seattle||3:25 pm||X||41-20|
|Nov. 24 - at Green Bay||Noon||26-26|
|Dec 1 - vs. Chicago||Noon||X||23-20|
|Dec 8 - at Baltimore||Noon||X||29-26|
|Dec 15 - vs. Philadelphia||Noon||X||48-30|
|Dec 22 - at Cincinnati||Noon||X||42-14|
|Dec 29 - vs. Detroit||Noon||X||14-13|
Poll: Which free-agent quarterback would you most like the Vikings to sign?