McCarthy: Bring on the big game vs. Lions to decide NFC North

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GREEN BAY, Wisconsin — Mike McCarthy loves the idea of his Green Bay Packers having something significant to play for in the Sunday's regular-season finale.

The Packers head coach has had teams whose playoff positioning was locked in entering the final game of the season (2009, 2011), and he's had teams that faced win-and-you're-in scenarios (2010, 2013).

But Sunday's NFC North championship game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field gives McCarthy precisely what he wants. The winner not only earns the NFC North crown, it also get the NFC's No. 2 seed and the first-round playoff bye and divisional-round home game that go with it. Even the top NFC seed could come to the winner.

Both teams are 11-4, with the Lions having won the first meeting 19-7 at Ford Field on Sept. 21.

The loser Sunday will be a wild card and would have to go on the road in the playoffs, something the Packers, a perfect 7-0 at home, would like to avoid.

"This is really how you want to go in to a (potential playoff) bye week," McCarthy said Monday, one day after his team's 20-3 victory at Tampa Bay, which clinched the Packers' sixth consecutive playoff berth.

In the 2009 regular-season finale at Arizona, McCarthy played his starters extensively even though he knew his team would be returning to Arizona the following week for a wild-card game. The Packers lost that postseason game 51-45 in overtime.

In the 2011 finale against the Lions, the Packers had the NFC's No. 1 seed sewn up. So McCarthy sat many of his key players, including Aaron Rodgers. Following a first-round bye, McCarthy's team looked rusty in an divisional-round loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants at Lambeau Field.

"If you look at some of the past experiences, sitting a number of players, you have things happen in the last game that are so different from the last four games before that," McCarthy said. "The fact of the matter), we're playing in a playoff-type game. I think is exactly the way you want to go into the playoffs.

"I think it's great that Detroit and our records are the same and we're playing for the title. Yeah, I think this is exactly how you'd want it. I know it's how I'd prefer it."

McCarthy acknowledged there's a school of thought that it's better for a hot team to simply keep playing, and that a bye can stall momentum. Certainly in 2010, when the Packers won the Super Bowl as the NFC's sixth seed, taking three straight road playoff games to get there, they got on a roll. Green Bay won its final two regular-season games to qualify for the playoffs.

And last year, after Rodgers missed seven starts with a broken left collarbone, the Packers beat the Bears at Soldier Field in the regular-season closer. That also amounted to the NFC North title game.

But to McCarthy, this setup is ideal: a playoff-style atmosphere with plenty on the line, and a chance for a week off and a home playoff game.

"I mean, byes are valuable. That's why you fight like crazy to be a No. 1 seed or a No. 2 seed," said McCarthy. "Anytime you have a chance to get that week off, I think it's important. I know some people believe in keep playing. We've done both. I think the bye is very beneficial, regardless of the outcome of the week after. It gives you a better chance to get your team ready. At the end of the day, the best preparation usually leads to a better performance."

NOTES: McCarthy altered the team's schedule to account for Christmas, scheduling practice on Tuesday (the players' usual day off) and Wednesday, then giving players, coaches and staff Thursday off. The team will then have its usual Friday-Saturday schedule in advance of the game. ... McCarthy's staff spent Monday game-planning for the Lions instead of breaking down film of the victory over Tampa Bay.


AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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