Cowboys' loss gives Packers renewed hope for home-field advantage

By: By CHRIS JENKINS, AP Sports Writer
By: By CHRIS JENKINS, AP Sports Writer

December 17, 2007

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) -- Asked last week about his strategy for resting veteran players down the stretch, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he'd be more willing to ponder the problem this week.

Now the answer might have changed.

While McCarthy would like to get his players some rest over the next two weeks, a surprising loss by the NFC-leading Dallas Cowboys on Sunday left the Packers with renewed hope for something that seemed unreachable a week ago: home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

"We've got two teams that are 12-2," McCarthy said Monday. "We're playing for home-field advantage, and that will be our focus. But with that, we have been playing pretty much almost everybody at most of our positions and we'll continue with that mind-set."

Green Bay wrapped up a first-round playoff bye with its 33-14 victory at St. Louis on Sunday, and is assured of at least a home game in the divisional round. Then Dallas lost at home to Philadelphia 10-6, leaving both teams with 12-2 records.

If Dallas and Green Bay both win out, the Cowboys still will earn home-field advantage by virtue of their tiebreaking 37-27 win over the Packers in Dallas late last month.

But if the Packers win their final two games -- at Chicago on Sunday and at home against Detroit in their finale -- and Dallas stumbles in one of two road games at Carolina and Washington, a potential Cowboys-Packers NFC title game would be played at Lambeau Field.

And if Dallas lost its last two, Green Bay would only have to win once.

McCarthy doesn't want to go overboard using playoff positioning as motivation for his young team. He doesn't want the players to lose focus on a division rival that, despite a disappointing season, is responsible for one of the Packers' two losses.

"Those are all things to watch, but this is a rival game," McCarthy said. "There's a lot of emotion. The importance of this game is very evident. It's probably the best rival football game in the National Football League, and we need to be 13-2 when we come back from Chicago."

With that in mind, McCarthy will make a bigger deal out of beating the Bears this week than trying to overtake the Cowboys.

"Everything else comes off of that," McCarthy said. "I think it's important to stay focused on the immediate target, because (if not) that's how you set yourself up for not playing your best football. I wasn't particularly happy with the way we started the St. Louis game. So we will be focused on the Chicago Bears -- 13-2 is important."

Of course, it's hard to imagine that McCarthy and the team won't be watching -- and rooting -- when the Cowboys play at Carolina on Saturday.

"It's amazing how much the playoff picture changes week to week," McCarthy said. "It goes on every year, and when you get down to the last three or four weeks, it's happening now again in the NFC. We just focus on winning the next game, but keeping your eye on the big target -- and that's to make sure our team is at full strength, to try to put us in position to be full strength, as we move into the playoffs, and we've never wavered from that."

Not even for last month's game at Dallas, which seemed at the time would decide home-field advantage. McCarthy didn't play it that way, as the Packers held back injured cornerback Charles Woodson and pass rush specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.

McCarthy's no clairvoyant, but he did stick to a long-term plan for having his team as healthy as possible come playoff time -- even if playing without Woodson and Gbaja-Biamila hurt the Packers' defense against Dallas.

"I'm not going to stand here and tell you I knew the Dallas Cowboys were going to lose a football game," McCarthy said. "That was not the mind-set at that time as far as playing Charles Woodson or Kabeer. It was clearly a medical decision in line with our long-term plan as far as getting ready for the playoffs."

Now Woodson is back on the field, and he doesn't necessarily want more rest.

"You don't want to rest too much because you don't want to lose that groove," Woodson said Sunday. "So you play as much as you can. Hopefully we can go in and dominate early in the next two games and then maybe we come out. But as far as playing, you want to be out there and you want to continue to be in football mode. You don't want to be sitting on the sidelines watching the games go by."

The unexpected shot at improving their playoff position also could delay a decision on resting Brett Favre, who has been solid but not spectacular in two outings since leaving the Dallas game with elbow and shoulder injuries.

McCarthy has said he would consider sitting Favre if the team didn't have anything at stake, and reiterated Monday that the option of resting Favre is being discussed weekly.

Favre said Sunday that while the injuries from the Dallas game "did not help," his arm doesn't feel too badly.

"I still think I fling it pretty good," Favre said.

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