The Green Bay Packers head up to Minnesota this week for the regular season finale, winners of four straight and nine of 10. Despite the fact that some new injury to a key contributor seems to arise every week, this team has without question lived up to many preseason prognostications as a Super Bowl contender.
You could say the team has proven that over and again the last few months since a disappointing loss to the playoff-bound Indianapolis Colts back on Oct. 7, but as the Packers learned last year, this league is all about what you've done the last week.
See, the Packers aren't the only "hot" team right now.
Their opponent this Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings, have won three in a row since a 23-14 loss to the Packers at Lambeau. If they win, they're in.
That makes this game dangerous for Green Bay not only this week, but down the line.
The Packers, led by Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy know this, perhaps more than any team currently in the NFC playoff picture.
This Packers team has drawn a lot of comparisons to the Super Bowl-winning club of 2010, but that team had to win its last game to just to get into the tournament. They were playing a Chicago Bears unit that already had its playoff position sewn up, and the Packers eventually won 10-3 in a game many people in Chicago bemoaned at the time.
Then, three weeks later ... well, you know the rest. The Packers met the Bears again in the NFC Championship game, injured quarterback Jay Cutler, won the game 21-14 and advanced to the Super Bowl.
All because they won in Week 17.
Now, if the Packers had nothing to play for Sunday you wouldn't see Rodgers out on the field very long. Despite maybe not wanting to allow the Vikings into the playoffs, no team would risk injury to their quarterback.
But, the Packers do have something to play for – the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first round bye. A victory over the Vikings clinches that as the No. 3 seed San Francisco 49ers will assuredly beat the hapless Arizona Cardinals.
While the last two Super Bowl champions have been wildcard entrants who went on the road to win a title, the easiest way to advance to the Big Game is to play as many playoff games at home, and to get that bye week to allow key players to get healthy.
That is especially the case this year, because of a unique twist to this Vikings-Packers matchup on Sunday: If the Vikings do beat the Packers, these same teams will meet again next week, at Lambeau, for a wildcard contest.
It would be the third time in six weeks the two would play each other and suddenly we'd all remember that the 23-14 Packers win on Dec. 2 in Green Bay wasn't that easy; that Adrian Peterson ran for 210 yards, that the Packers offense managed just two touchdowns and two cringe-inducing Mason Crosby field goals, that Minnesota led 14-13 until late in the third.
The playoffs begin Sunday in Minnesota for the Packers, and I have a feeling they know it. This is a veteran bunch, so the road atmosphere won't get to them. Rodgers prefers playing in controlled environments and the Packers have a speed advantage on the turf.
Of course the Vikings will be desperate, their defense playing with the pedal to the floor, and no doubt coach Leslie Frazier will pull out all the stops to win.
It's a dangerous scenario for Green Bay, but the team must decide what's more dangerous – putting Rodgers in harm's way in an effort to get that No. 2 seed, or letting the Vikings into the playoffs and doing it all over again next week?
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.