Resurgent Packers can control division with win

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The last time the Green Bay Packers played the Chicago Bears, Brett Favre showed off his softer side.

Walking off the field for what he thought might be the final time after a 26-7 victory at Chicago on New Year's Eve, Favre got all choked up during a television interview.

And boy, would he hear about it later on.

"I've had buddies and friends say, 'You looked terrible crying on national TV,'" Favre said.

Favre insisted this week there was "nothing fabricated" about his emotions that night, and he wasn't just hamming it up for the cameras. But he ultimately decided not to retire -- he always does, right? -- and now it certainly looks like he made the right call.

Behind a strong defense and Favre's transition to a low-risk short passing game, the Packers (4-0) have roared to a surprising start. And with the Bears (1-3) struggling to find the form that made them a Super Bowl team last year, the Packers are poised to deliver an early knockout punch in the NFC North race with a victory in Sunday night's game at Lambeau Field.

Not that Favre and the resurgent Packers are taking a playoff spot for granted.

"I'm glad I came back," Favre said. "I think I'm playing the way I'm capable of playing, but it's all about where you are at the end of the year. We all know that. It's a feel-good story right now, I guess, if you want to say that, but we're 4-0. It's nothing greater than that. We're not in the playoffs. We haven't won the division; we're not even close."

Injuries have been a serious setback for Chicago's defense, and continued instability at quarterback led Bears coach Lovie Smith to make a change last week. Talented but wildly inconsistent quarterback Rex Grossman was benched in favor of backup Brian Griese, who was supposed to be steadier but less spectacular.

Griese, the eye-popping 21st different quarterback to start for Chicago since Favre took over in Green Bay, promptly threw three interceptions in the Bears' 37-27 loss at Detroit.

But after shaking off some of the rust, Griese expects improvement Sunday.

"It should be more comfortable," Griese said. "Last week, it'd been not quite two years since I'd been out there. So I feel like it'll be a little more comfortable coming in this week, having spent some time with the guys on offense."

Regardless of the Bears' struggles, Smith, who is 4-2 against the Packers in a rivalry he has emphasized since his first day as Bears head coach, said there's plenty of time left in the season for a turnaround.

"We have a good football team that's gotten off to a slow start," Smith said. "That's what we have right now. Thank God we have more football left to go, that they don't give out championships after one quarter of the season."

Safety Mike Brown and defensive lineman Dusty Dvoracek are out for the season, and safety Adam Archuleta, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nate Vasher all sat out the Detroit game with injuries. Dominant defensive tackle Tommie Harris played despite a sprained knee.

The Spare Bears gave up an NFL-record 34 fourth-quarter points to Detroit on Sunday, although that total did include a Detroit interception return and kickoff return for touchdowns.

"Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong so far for us," Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. "This would be a good chance to turn it around."

That's a fact not lost on Favre and the Packers, who recognize it's far too early to start talking about wrapping up the division or going to the playoffs.

"It's early in the year," Favre said. "Chicago's been beat up. I think they're going to be right in the middle of this race at the end. I have no doubts in my mind that they will be. They're too good of a football team."

And they've still got special teams standout Devin Hester, who had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Lions.

It might be wishful thinking, but Smith said teams will keep kicking the ball to his star returner.

"Devin hasn't scored a touchdown every time he's touched the ball, so I assume teams will continue to kick the ball to him," Smith said.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy said denying the ball to Hester is often easier said than done.

"There's a whole thought process that goes into it," McCarthy said. "You don't just line up and say I'm not going to kick the ball to the guy and it's that easy. I think everyone would have done it already. There are other things that go on in the planning and execution of keeping the ball away from the returner."

McCarthy also doesn't buy the idea that the Packers' victory over the Bears at the end of last season didn't mean much because the Bears already were playoff-bound and didn't have anything to play for.

Now that the Packers have won eight straight games dating back to last season, the victory might have been more meaningful than it seemed at the time.

"My recollection of that week was how important it was for them to play well in that game and carry momentum into the playoffs -- and they played their starters into the third quarter, they played a fair amount of time," McCarthy said. "If memory serves me correct, we were in control of that football game at halftime."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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