What's the difference between fourth and 25 and fourth and 26? For the Packers, it's as stark as joy and pain.
The former was the down and distance facing the Arizona Cardinals when they scored an improbable, game-ending touchdown to beat Minnesota on 2003's final Sunday, knocking the Vikings out of the playoffs and handing Green Bay the NFC North title. The latter resulted in a similarly implausible conversion by the Eagles against the Packers in the second round of the playoffs that allowed Philadelphia to send the game into overtime, when it won. Fourth and long saved Green Bay; fourth and even longer hangs over it.
"The first two weeks after that loss, every letter I opened and every fax I got was about that loss," Packers President Bob Harlan told the Capital (Wis.) Times.
Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was fired. Green Bay used its first two draft picks on cornerbacks (Ahmad Carroll, who could start, and Joey Thomas). Its only significant free agent signing was a safety (Mark Roman). Mike McKenzie, the team's best cornerback -- not to mention the league's most hirsute -- became mired in a bitter dispute with Packers management and has refused to report to the team while demanding a trade. And every time Brett Favre makes his offseason migration to the farm in Mississippi, Packers fans worry that he won't return in the fall.
But there is good news. Ahman Green is coming off the best season by a running back in the franchise's long history -- he ran for 1,883 yards, scored 20 total touchdowns and was second on the team with 50 receptions. The offensive line could be the NFL's best -- not only did it pave the way for the Packers' top three running backs, all of whom averaged five yards or better per carry, only one team in the league allowed fewer sacks. Favre led the NFL with 32 touchdown passes and posted the highest completion percentage of his career. Even at 35, Favre can still be more effective than all but a few of the NFL's quarterbacks, particularly with the protection he gets from the line and the versatility that Green, the unit's true centerpiece, allows.
Even that maligned defense, with a terrific pair of safeties in Roman and Darren Sharper and an emerging star in linebacker Nick Barnett, allowed fewer points than any team besides the Patriots over the final half of last season. In that span only one opponent gained more than 300 yards against the Pack.
Green Bay has 12 straight winning seasons, boasting the NFL's best record (117-59) and most playoff appearances (nine) since 1993. But the pressure is on to get Favre -- who would hardly be a bigger icon in Wisconsin if his image graced the state flag -- back to the Super Bowl before he retires. The margin between success and failure in that quest could be just as thin this season as it was last season.
Best Hands: Don Hutson retired in 1945 with 99 touchdown catches, a record that stood for more than 40 years. As his biography on the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Web site reads, "Hutson invented modern pass receiving."
Worst Hands: Did anyone let his career slip through his hands more than Mark
Grading This Year's WRs: Big things are expected of Javon Walker and Robert Ferguson. But the same was said of Donald Driver before last season.
WRs Grade: B minus