MINNEAPOLIS — The NFL won't be handing out a Lombardi Trophy next week after the Green Bay Packers play the New England Patriots.
But for a regular-season game, this will be a big one, if for no other reason than to get a truer read on these 2014 Packers.
They've won seven of their last eight games, including grinding out a 24-21 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium. Most of those wins have been by big margins — an average margin of victory of 25 points. But anyone looking for caveats doesn't have to work hard to find them.
Five of the wins have been against teams under .500 (Chicago and Minnesota twice, and Carolina). Another was over a good Philadelphia Eagles team playing its backup quarterback. And the most difficult circumstances the Packers have faced in this stretch, at New Orleans in one of the toughest primetime venues in the league, ended in a sound defeat.
Now the 9-2 New England Patriots, rolling on a seven-game winning streak, come to Lambeau Field in a matchup of probably the two hottest teams in the NFL. No caveats for this one.
"That's what you live for in the NFL," said T.J. Lang, the Packers' right guard. "It's a good way to measure yourself, kind of give you some confidence. It's going to be a big challenge for us. I think everybody's looking forward to it."
The Packers go into this week in a much different place than they were for a good part of this season. The Patriots' home blowout 34-9 win over Detroit on Sunday means that the 8-3 Packers are a game ahead of the Lions for first place in the NFC North Division. Who even remembers the Packers' 1-2 start anymore?
If the playoffs started today, the Packers would be the NFC's No. 2 seed, a game behind top-seeded Arizona (9-2).
And New England would be the top-seeded team in the AFC. In maybe the best evidence of the Patriots' roll, during their seven-game winning streak they've averaged 39.6 points and have decisive wins over 8-3 Denver (43-21), 7-4 Indianapolis (42-20) and 7-4 Detroit.
The game also will be the first matchup between two of the game's best quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and the Patriots' Tom Brady. According to Bovada.lv, Rodgers went into this weekend with the best odds of winning the NFL MVP award (11-to-10); Brady was fourth (6-to-1).
"I like this win and we're going to enjoy this," linebacker Clay Matthews said after beating the Vikings, "but you have to be excited with this opportunity (next week)."
Said cornerback Tramon Williams: "It's the type of environment we're going to be in if we're going to get where we want to go. We have to play teams like that."
The Packers had so dominated in their two games since the bye that their difficult 24-21 win over the Vikings felt flat. But this is the NFL, and underdogs often win. Just this week, previously winless Oakland beat Kansas City.
Still, while there's no disputing that the Packers' defense got better when Matthews moved to inside linebacker, this game left open to question just how much. The Vikings, who entered the game ranked No. 30 in yards and No. 28 in points, put up 308 yards. Also, with the chance to put away the game with a stop, the Packers didn't get it. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went through coordinator Dom Capers' defense for a 79-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter that kept the Vikings in the game until the end.
But for the first time this season, the Packers also saw the dimension halfback Eddie Lacy brings as a closer. Lacy and the Packers' offensive line killed the final 3:23 of the game with five straight runs that picked up two first downs.
"Good to see we can win games any way we need to," Williams said. "Whether it's passing the ball, whether it's pounding it for the 4-minute offense, that's the sign of what you need going into the playoffs."
The closeout no doubt will get the attention of future opponents, because the fact is, the Vikings knew the run was coming, and they couldn't stop Lacy, who is listed at 230 pounds but surely weighs more. There are a lot of ways to win football games, but finishing with this kind of brute force can mean more than winning this one game.
"It's a big step in the right direction for November, December football," left guard Josh Sitton said. "We're going to have to do that. We're not going to be up by 30 (points) every game, we know that. It's a huge confidence booster for the O-line and the running game."
The key play near the end, a third-and-2 with 2:31 to play, showed the problem defenses face against the Packers that they hadn't in the Rodgers era. Third-and-short normally has been a passing down with Rodgers at quarterback, but that threat set up Lacy for a 4-yard plunge for the first down.
McCarthy in fact gave Rodgers the choice of a pass or run on that play, and Rodgers chose the run.
"The way that Eddie was running the football, and the line, you have to give the line a voice," Rodgers said. "Those guys know the pulse of the game there. Especially late in the game there. They felt like a run was something we could get."