Packers 7-0 start won't mean much if they can't finish as champions

Oct. 26, 2011

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Itís not how you start, but how you finish.

Letís remember those words as we listen to the pundits rave about the 7-0 Green Bay Packers, who are off to their best start in 49 years.

The compliments are nice and the praise from near and far makes Packers fans swell up with pride over their beloved team that sits atop the pro football world.

But they donít crown the team with the best first-half record. In three months, when the snow is flying and the winter winds are howling, no one will care who was looking spiffy in late October.

This is not meant to diminish the Packersí impressive start. Any achievement that comes around once every half-century or so cannot be easily dismissed.

The Packers have won a remarkable 13 consecutive games including last seasonís playoff run to the Super Bowl championship. Itís been 10Ĺ months since their last loss, and if you include games in which Aaron Rodgers was healthy, the unbeaten streak stretches almost an entire year.

Winning is extremely difficult in the NFL, yet the Packers are making it look easy.

Rodgers has emerged as the best quarterback in the league, and if he continues on his current career arc will threaten to become the greatest in history.

The Packers are averaging 33 points per game and their explosive offense is feared around the league.

With apologies to the New England Patriots, who havenít won a championship in seven years, the Packers have become the NFLís model franchise.

Yet for all the bouquets being tossed the Packersí way, history tells us nothing is guaranteed this season. The past is littered with NFL teams, including defending champions, that sprinted out of the starting gate but stumbled down the stretch.

The 2007 Patriots will be remembered most not for their 16-0 regular-season record, but for losing in the Super Bowl and blowing the chance to be the first 19-0 team in NFL history.

That same year, the Indianapolis Colts were the reigning champions, started 7-0 and seemed invincible, yet couldnít sustain their success and didnít win a playoff game.

Closer to home, the 1998 Minnesota Vikings started 7-0 on their way to a 15-1 record, then choked away a Super Bowl berth by losing at home in the NFC title game.

Does anyone recall that the 2009 Colts started 14-0? Probably not, because they eventually lost in the Super Bowl. They join a half dozen other teams since 1969 that started 10-0 or better and failed to win a championship.

The Packers need only look at their own shining example from last season to be reminded that teams hitting their peak in late December, and not September or October, are the ones that will be remembered most for their success.

The Packers plodded their way to a 3-3 record in 2010 and even by mid-December were a run-of-the-mill 8-6 team with an outside chance of making the playoffs. Thatís when they caught fire, ran off six straight victories and brought home the Lombardi Trophy.

So how can the Packers ensure that their fast start this season carries into December and January?

There are significant factors working in their favor, and it starts with the prolific play of Rodgers. Any team with a quarterback that good has a chance to win every time it takes the field.

What separates good teams from great teams are the difference-makers on a roster ó the one or two or three high-impact players capable of changing the outcome of games.

Rodgers possesses that rare ability, as does linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson. It helps that they are surrounded by a solid core of talented teammates, and some would argue that receiver Greg Jennings, tight end Jermichael Finley and defensive lineman B.J. Raji also belong in that elite group.

But the key for the Packersí success going forward is keeping Rodgers, Matthews and Woodson healthy.

Despite their perfect record, the Packers havenít come close to peaking. They have left a lot of room for improvement, particularly on defense.

While there should be some concern about the Packers allowing the second-most passing yards in the NFL, it will never become a major issue if the defense continues to force turnovers and keep teams out of the end zone.

Yardage statistics look impressive on paper, but in the only ranking that matters, the Packers are No. 10 in points allowed, and any team with a top-10 defense has a chance to flourish in the playoffs.

What the Packers also have going for them is a seemingly unshakable confidence. Three times they have fallen behind by a touchdown or more on the road and have responded with scoring runs of 23-0 against Carolina, 25-0 vs. Atlanta and 23-0 at Minnesota.

Their response to getting hit in the face is to punch back even harder.

When they trailed by two touchdowns against a very good Falcons team earlier this month in front of a noisy, hostile crowd, the Packers easily could have lost their composure but instead won handily. If they can survive that kind of adversity, they can overcome anything.

This marks the fifth time since the franchise joined the NFL 90 years ago that the Packers have won their first seven games. The four previous seasons ó in 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1962 ó they went on to win championships.

Thatís called finishing, and itís something the impressive-looking 2011 team must prove it can do.

ó and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

Special Reports