By Tim Gutowski Published Jan 04, 2005 at 5:21 AM

{image1} A mere 16 days after defeating their chief rivals to clinch the NFC North Division title, the Packers will meet the Minnesota Vikings again with even more on the line this Sunday in Green Bay. How they perform in that game will determine exactly what sort of playoff team they are -- pretender or contender.

Even though the Packers needed last-second dramatics to reach the playoffs a year ago, the feeling surrounding the 2003 team was much more positive heading into wild-card weekend. The Packers had won four games in a row, and Minnesota's final-second stumble seemed to signal a greater power (be it Irv Favre or another football deity) was smiling down on the team from somewhere on high.

It was a great story, but stories don't counteract spotty pass defenses. Philadelphia exposed that Packers weakness at a critical time and ended the club's fanciful Super Bowl dreams.

The 2004 bunch has a more pronounced set of flaws and fewer true believers. While the Packers led the NFC in points scored at 424, they also allowed 380. Put another way, that's 120 more than the NFC favorite Eagles, not to mention 73 more than the 2003 Packers. But look around the NFC playoff slate and you'll find more of the same. Minnesota (395) and St. Louis (392) both gave up more points than the Packers, and Seattle (373) and Atlanta (337) aren't exactly defensive juggernauts, either.

Looking at point differential further muddies (or clarifies) the NFC waters. The Packers were +44, meaning they outscored their opponents by an average of 2.75 points per game. That seems modest until you consider Minnesota (+10), Atlanta (+3), Seattle (-2) and St. Louis (-73). All are weaker teams according to this benchmark. But once again Philly reigns supreme among NFC contenders (+126) despite resting starters over the final two games.

In other words, expect to hear a lot of this over the next few days: The Eagles, even without Terrell Owens, are definitive favorites in the NFC. The next most dangerous team may well be Green Bay, though the Packers' glaring Achilles heel is its shoddy defense. Atlanta earns respect for the "Michael Vick factor," which states that -- like Vince Young in the Rose Bowl -- a multi-threat quarterback can single-handedly end a superior team's Super Bowl dreams.

Conventional wisdom, right? But is it correct?

At this point, Packers fans are settling into one of two camps. There are the realists, who look at Green Bay's weak pass rush (Sunday's performance against a horrible Chicago offensive line notwithstanding), poor team tackling and error-ridden secondary and say, "They'll be lucky to beat Minnesota again." Then there are the closet dreamers, who look at Brett Favre, Javon Walker, Ahman Green and Donald Driver and say, "Yeah, the defense sucks, but I think they can out-score anybody out there." Me? I'm somewhere in between.

Objectively, it's difficult to be confident about Green Bay's NFC chances. In fact, it's tough to feel confident about the Packers winning at home next week. In addition to the team's defensive woes, it was just 4-4 at home this season. Plus, the Packers needed last-second field goals against Detroit and Minnesota to win two of those four games. All that truly separates Green Bay's season from the Vikings' is a couple Ryan Longwell field goals, one made possible by a questionable fumble recovery, the other by a self-destructive, penalty-plagued Minnesota offense.

But there is also the other side of the ledger. If the Packers hold onto the football, only Philadelphia's defense truly matches up with their offense. Minnesota doesn't like to play on grass (1-3 this year) and seems to be questioning its own toughness. Atlanta is one-dimensional (though that dimension -- Vick -- has given Green Bay fits). And all the bad feelings of losing the home finale to Jacksonville just two weeks ago have been replaced by what feels like honest-to-goodness momentum.

Am I dithering? Yes. But it pays to restate the obvious. To win the NFC (and let's not even talk about the Super Bowl), the Packers will first have to beat Minnesota. This would accomplish a couple things: First, it would complete an incomparably satisfying season-sweep of their biggest rival. Second, it would demonstrate the Packers can beat a quality offensive team when it matters. And third, it would set up the chance to exorcise the demons from last season's divisional playoff.

From there, it would be on to Atlanta and most likely Philadelphia. It's a route No. 3-seeded Carolina traveled last year (one home game, two road games) to reach Super Sunday. Are the Packers likely to complete it? Not really. But after a 1-4 start, at least it's a road the Packers are still traveling on.

Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.

Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.