The Green Bay Packers return to work from their bye on Monday one game out of first place in the tough NFC North, their 6-3 record leaving them a game back of the 7-2 Chicago Bears.
And compared to last year, when the first-place Packers were 9-0 and chasing perfection while the Bears and Detroit Lions were each three games back at 6-3, the Packers are actually in … a better position?
If you believe the reigning NFL MVP, they are – even with the avalanche of injuries they've endured.
With five of their final seven games against division foes – beginning with next Sunday's game at Detroit – quarterback Aaron Rodgers believes they are in good shape because they control their own destiny, even with two games each against the Lions (4-5) and Minnesota Vikings (6-4), a rematch with the Bears (7-2) in Chicago and non-divisional matchups with Tennessee (4-6) at home and against the New York Giants (6-4) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
"Well, it's very challenging," Rodgers said last Tuesday on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. "I think if you look at where we're at this year compared to last year; last year we were obviously a lot more healthy, we were 9-0 at this point, we were on a roll – (but) that was a different team.
"This team has dealt with a ton of adversity, dealt with injuries, had some ups and downs, some inconsistent play, some bad luck, just some crazy things that have happened on the field. But I like to think that this team is in, maybe, a better position than last year's team because we've already dealt with some major adversity and we realize after last year how important it is to be playing the right way late in the season – as opposed to kind of building and peaking too early.
"I think that guys understand how important this stretch run is going to be in playing our best in November and December. Hopefully we learned a lot from last year and we can get our guys back healthy. It's all laid out right in front of us so there are going to be no excuses after this seven-game stretch here."
While the players had the entire week off – they were dismissed after last Sunday's 31-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals and scattered about the country before returning for meetings and practice Monday morning – the coaches had two goals before getting their few days off: A self-scout evaluation and prep on their divisional opponents, particularly the Lions.
"We spent some time on (self-scouting) … (on Tuesday) with the coordinators," coach Mike McCarthy said. "(With) five division games in the next seven weeks when we get back, we're doing a lot of things as we're preparing for … key focuses. Division games are a little different. We've never played this many division games in this period of time, so that's part of our emphasis."
McCarthy has his coaches do extensive study of division foes during their offseason work, but with the long lag time between that study and these games – the Packers' lone division game so far this season was their Sept. 13 victory over the Bears at Lambeau Field – some of that study is obsolete.
"We take a week – one week per division team as a staff – (during the offseason) and look at everything they did the prior year. With that being said, the norm is you may use that information in Weeks 1 through 4, like we were able to the second week with the Chicago Bears," McCarthy explained. "But now you have nine weeks of information (from the 2012 regular season).
"Now you have to evaluate that and see how that coincides with last year's information. It's definitely a different challenge and everybody goes through the same things. When you play a team twice, you have the first-game approach and second-game approach. Just in the case of the Detroit Lions, (the two games are) going to be three weeks apart. That's happened before, but going this long has been a challenge. But having the bye week will definitely help us be ready."
Whether or not the bye week will bring any healthy returns to the Packers' M*A*S*H unit remains to be seen. Among the Packers' high-profile starters who've been sidelined: Wide receivers Greg Jennings (groin/abdominal), Jordy Nelson (hamstring/ankle), safety Charles Woodson (broken collarbone), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (hip) and outside linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring). Rookie first-round draft pick Nick Perry, who'd started opposite Matthews and shared time with Erik Walden, was placed on season-ending injured reserve following bye-week wrist surgery.
"This is always a good break to be able to reflect and look at the things you've done well and areas you feel you need to improve. Obviously, it gives us a chance to evaluate where our injured guys are and what the possibilities are in different combinations of guys coming back," said defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who has gotten a number of youngsters valuable experience. "I think the bye week comes at a good time for us. I liked some of the things that we've been doing the last three, four weeks."
Sunday was kind to the idle Packers, with Atlanta (8-1) suffering its first loss, San Francisco (6-2-1) with a rare tie against St. Louis, the Bears having their six-game winning streak snapped by the Houston Texans, and the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants falling to 6-4 with a blowout loss. Detroit fell below .500 with its loss to the Vikings at the Metrodome.
Whether or not the schedule being so heavily weighted toward division games benefits the Packers, well, even McCarthy can't say for now.
"I'll have to ask you (to ask again) and you'll have to help me answer that in January," McCarthy said. "It's a first."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 540 ESPN on "Green & Gold Today," and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.