GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There's only seven games left in the Packers' season, and yet, somehow, they've only played one divisional opponent.
That one game was nearly two months ago, when Green Bay hosted Chicago and gave the Bears their only loss of the season through nine weeks. Since then, the Packers have matched up against a random assortment of AFC and NFC teams, with varying degrees of success.
But once Green Bay returns from its bye week, the team will start to catch up from all that time spent outside the division. Five of the Packers' remaining seven games are against the NFC North, beginning with a road trip to face the Detroit Lions. Three weeks after that, the Lions will travel to Lambeau Field for a rematch.
That's how the end of the season is going to be for coach Mike McCarthy and his players.
"We've never played this many division games in this period of time," McCarthy said Monday. "It's a first."
The last time Green Bay lost a divisional game was in Detroit on Dec. 12, 2010, the day quarterback Aaron Rodgers was knocked out with a concussion.
In the 23 months since that loss, the Packers have dominated North opponents. They won a Super Bowl and beat the Bears twice in the process. They embarrassed the Minnesota Vikings in a Monday night game by 38 points. They defeated the Lions while Rodgers and every other star player watched from the sideline in a game that Detroit desperately needed to win for better playoff positioning.
So, until one of these teams knocks Green Bay off, the Packers are the team to beat.
Chicago currently leads the division with a 7-1 record, but its schedule becomes very difficult in the final two months of the season. The Bears have to host the Houston Texans -- whose only loss is to Green Bay -- and will play two teams that beat the Packers, the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) and the Seattle Seahawks (5-4). Even if Chicago plays incredibly well, it will be fortunate to win two of those three games. Winning one of them, however, is a more likely outcome.
Regardless of those three games, in order for the Bears to have a legitimate shot at winning the NFC North, they'll have to beat Green Bay. That's been a challenge for quarterback Jay Cutler in recent years, as he's lost five consecutive games against the Packers. Chicago will have the advantage of playing at home and, in mid-December, the Packers' passing offense could be slowed by the weather. But that's also the time of the season when Green Bay is planning to get back many of its injured starters. Running back Cedric Benson is scheduled to return from his injured reserve designation a week earlier. Safety Charles Woodson (collarbone) and wide receiver Greg Jennings (abdominal muscle) are also expected back.
The Vikings' surprisingly positive start to the season has them at 5-4 and just one game behind the Packers in the standings. And these two teams will have a chance to settle their head-to-head tiebreaker by facing off twice in a span of four weeks. Had Green Bay been as dominant as it was last season, Minnesota would have caught a break by drawing the Packers in Week 17. Maybe Rodgers would have rested for an upcoming postseason push. But unless Green Bay goes an unlikely 6-0 between now and then, the Vikings will be closing out their regular season by hosting a Packers team that will need a win.
Minnesota has Adrian Peterson, a running back who has proven that he's all the way back from his devastating knee injury. Peterson becomes even more valuable if there's snow on Lambeau Field for the two teams' Dec. 2 meeting. Having one of the NFL's best running backs isn't typically as beneficial as having one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, but things can be different in wintry weather.
But the Packers are a better team in every area, other than rushing offense. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder has fallen off badly in recent weeks, and Minnesota's schedule is brutal -- two games against Green Bay, two against Chicago and a road game against the Texans. It appears with near certainty that the Vikings' 4-1 start will be for naught and they'll once again miss the playoffs.
Before getting to the Bears or Vikings, though, the Packers will return from the bye with a trip to Detroit. The Lions (4-4) are in last place in the division, but they're trending in a positive direction while Minnesota has begun its descent toward the NFC North's basement. Detroit, for all its issues this season, still owns the league's top-ranked passing offense in total yards. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson isn't catching well (NFL-worst eight drops), and quarterback Matthew Stafford isn't throwing many touchdown passes (his eight TDs have him ranked 25th in the league), but the Lions pose a serious threat to Green Bay's chances of winning the division. Detroit has the good fortune of getting the Packers immediately after Green Bay's bye, when linebacker Clay Matthews, tackle Bryan Bulaga, Benson, Woodson, Jennings and many other starters will all likely still be out. But the Lions may be too far behind in the division (two back from the Packers) to catch up, unless they go on a major run. Their remaining schedule includes two games with Green Bay and games against the currently undefeated Atlanta Falcons, the one-loss Texans and the suddenly unbeatable Indianapolis Colts.
As these four NFC North teams get well acquainted over the final seven weeks of the season, the head-to-head matchups will end up deciding the division winner. But unless injuries continue to mount or those players expected to return are unable to do so, the Packers are the best of the group and should have the edge over their three Midwest rivals.
"You have to be at your best because, to do what we want to do, you have to win your division games," McCarthy said. "When you have five of seven, we're going to get a heavy dose of guys who know a lot about us and we know a lot about them. That's always a challenge. You've got to put extra effort in the preparation.
"There's always a little more intensity that comes with division games. It'll start right as soon as we get back."
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