Mike Vandermause column: Division games raise the stakes

Dec. 1, 2012
GPG_ES_Packers vs. Lions_11.18.12
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy is 30-9 (.769) against division teams during his tenure, including 9-3 against the Minnesota Vikings. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

Former Green Bay Packers fullback William Henderson considered division games so important that he declined interview requests during weeks when he was preparing to face Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit.

Although Henderson hasn’t played since 2006, the Packers’ intensity against division foes remains intact.

No one stiff-armed the media this week because of Sunday’s game against the Vikings at Lambeau Field, but there was a distinct buzz in the Packers’ locker room.

“Yeah, you feel it, you feel it (in) practice, and just the vibe you get from everybody,” said rookie safety Jerron McMillian. “It’s a division game. ... They’re important, they’re real important.”

They have perhaps never been more important to the Packers than this month. The Bears (8-3), Packers (7-4) and Vikings (6-5) are locked in a hotly contested battle for division supremacy, and the Packers play four of their final five games against NFC North opponents.

Division games will make or break their season, and based on coach Mike McCarthy’s stellar NFC North track record, you have to like the Packers’ chances.

McCarthy has posted a remarkable 30-9 record (.769) against division teams in nearly seven seasons, including 12-1 vs. Detroit, 9-3 vs. Minnesota and 9-5 vs. Chicago.

The Packers are riding a franchise-record nine-game winning streak in the NFC North. Their last division blemish came in December 2010, a 7-3 loss at Detroit, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion in the first half.

When the division winning streak was pointed out to McCarthy this week, he pleaded ignorance, and just one of five players randomly surveyed in the locker room claimed to know about it.

That’s likely because McCarthy instructs his players to have tunnel vision. Ideally, their only focus this week should be on the Vikings.

It’s a formula that has worked well for McCarthy, who spends extra time during the offseason focusing on division opponents and has been known to deploy added motivational tactics prior to games against NFC North teams.

“Yeah, definitely pretty much every (division) week you see signs up around here,” said rookie linebacker Dezman Moses. “Division games are definitely, the sense of urgency is raised. It’s pretty clear when we have a division game throughout the week.”

It’s not that the Packers view games outside the division as less important. But when NFL math is applied, players believe division games count double because you climb up a rung in the standings with a victory while pushing an NFC North rival down a notch.

“Every game is important,” said safety Morgan Burnett. “But those division games have a little more intensity, a little more rivalry about it, because you see each other twice a season. Those guys know us, we know them, so you get really excited and pumped about your division game.”

Added rookie offensive lineman Greg Van Roten: “We never approach a game differently, but (division games) are more intense because they mean more as far as the playoffs are concerned.”

McCarthy’s success in the division has been uncanny. He has posted a combined winning record against NFC North opponents every year. Even when the Packers stumbled to a 6-10 record in 2008, they were 4-2 in the division.

It’s a trend that started in Green Bay under coach Mike Holmgren, who was 40-19 (.678) against division foes from 1992 to ’98, and continued under Mike Sherman, who was 26-14 (.650) from 2000 to ’05.

McCarthy has taken it to the next level. His glimmering division record, which includes an NFC championship game victory over Chicago two years ago, compares very favorably to the NFC North records of the Bears (24-16), Vikings (17-22) and Lions (8-32) since 2006.

What’s his secret to winning better than three out of every four division games?

The biggest factor is McCarthy has employed the best quarterback in the division for nearly all of his coaching reign, whether it was Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers also play especially well in domes. McCarthy has a sparkling 10-3 record combined at Ford Field in Detroit and the Metrodome in Minneapolis, making it seem as if the Packers are playing almost all of their division games at home.

The Packers’ dominance hasn’t always translated into division titles, however. McCarthy has captured two NFC North crowns in his first six seasons, which is the same number of titles claimed by the Bears and Vikings.

Holmgren won three division titles in seven seasons, and Sherman took home three crowns in six years.

But the guaranteed home playoff game that accompanies a division championship isn’t as important as it used to be. Three of the past seven Super Bowl champions didn’t win their division, including the 2010 Packers, 2007 New York Giants and 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers.

What’s most important is qualifying for the playoffs, and the Packers, Vikings and Bears are in prime position to do that heading into the frantic final five games.

They all play each other in the final month, including two Packers-Vikings matchups.

“It makes that last part of the season that much more intense,” said Packers tight end Tom Crabtree. “That’s the one word that kind of sticks out.”

It’s going to be an intense December in the NFC North.

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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