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For Packers, perfection might be inevitable

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 12:08 PM
TAMPA -

Once Green Bay ends the suspense today, the real mystery begins.

With a victory against the hapless Chiefs, the Packers would improve to 14-0, securing the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed and assuring their fans they will host the conference title game — barring an upset at Lambeau Field in the divisional round.

Coach Mike McCarthy has had all the right answers during a 19-game winning streak, but he will face a vexing question in Week 16: Should he rest some key players when the Packers close the regular season with home games against Chicago and Detroit?

In the process, McCarthy likely will determine the winner of the NFL Coach of the Year award. If Green Bay enters the playoffs 16-0, McCarthy would stake a powerful claim to become the first Packers coach to capture the honor since Lindy Infante in 1989.

Don Shula won Coach of the Year for the fourth and final time after guiding the 1972 Dolphins through an unbeaten regular season. That Miami club completed the only perfect slate (17-0) in league history and, 39 years later, the Packers have a realistic chance to finish 19-0.

"If you have an opportunity to go perfect, why wouldn't you want to go perfect?'' Green Bay wide receiver James Jones asked.

Green Bay's 13-0 getaway commands respect. The Packers have spiked any notions of a Super Bowl hangover and their average margin of victory (14.5 points per game) is extraordinary in a league that crows about parity.

The dilemma whether to play it safe down the stretch is complicated.

The 2009 Colts rested Peyton Manning, finished 14-2 and lost to New Orleans in the Super Bowl. In 2007, the Patriots remained aggressive and went to 18-0 before the Giants rallied for a last-minute Super Bowl win.

If McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson survey their players, the choice will be obvious.

"We're 13-0,'' said Packers wide receiver Donald Driver. "To be 14-0, 15-0, 16-0, that's something special. That's what we want to be a part of.''

Players may have some cursory input, but make no mistake — Thompson and McCarthy will make the call whether quarterback Aaron Rodgers takes all the snaps against the Bears and Lions.

There's more than a decent chance Green Bay fans can end up having it their way.

The Packers are so prolific, averaging 36 points per game, they often put teams away early. A week ago, Green Bay owned a 31-0 halftime lead against an Oakland club fighting for its postseason life.

It's not far-fetched to suggest the Packers will build lopsided leads in their final two games and then tell Rodgers to take a seat.

Wouldn't it be nice to be both bold and prudent within the same game?

Should the Packers run the regular-season table, McCarthy will have my vote as the Associated Press Coach of the Year.

But if Green Bay lurches a bit, that opens the door for San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh and Houston's Gary Kubiak.

Texans owner Bob McNair stuck with Kubiak and has been rewarded with a 10-3 season that has invigorated the fan base. Kubiak was smart and secure enough to hire Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator and the Texans appear to own the inside track to secure the AFC's top seed.

Harbaugh empowered floundering quarterback Alex Smith while building a physical, smash-mouth club that leads the NFL in turnover ratio and scoring defense.

Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin won't win the award, but Jon Gruden's former assistant in Tampa has turned in another outstanding job. Instead of folding after a 35-7 loss at Baltimore in Week 1, the Steelers have won 10 of 12 games heading into a riveting Monday night matchup in San Francisco.

"Mike Tomlin's an energy source for the Pittsburgh Steelers,'' Gruden said this week during an ESPN conference call.

Tomlin and McCarthy stood on opposite Super Bowl sidelines at Cowboys Stadium in February, when the Steelers fell a little short.

If they meet again in Indianapolis on Feb. 5, no one should be surprised.


ikaufman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7833

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