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Do Packers chase 16-0 or rest key players?

By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer / December 14, 2011
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16-0. It could happen.

Having won their first 13 games, and with three mediocre opponents left on the schedule, the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers will try to do something no other National Football League team has done since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. And that's going undefeated, start to finish.

The Dolphins won every game and added the NFL championship, going 17-0 overall. It took another 35 years before there was a true challenger, the 2007 New England Patriots, followed by the 2009 Indianapolis Colts.

The pursuit of perfection, however, poses a dilemma -- figuring out if it's worth the chase.

The Packers will need to decide whether to stick with their stars and other regulars or rest them to prepare for the playoffs and, hopefully, another Super Bowl title.

Even within their own ranks, there is uncertainty.

"There's risk every time you take the field," says quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the favorite to win the NFL's Most Valuable Player award. "We're going to keep playing the way we're playing."

Yet linebacker Clay Matthews sees the value of playing it safe.

"We're here to win ballgames, but at the same time you don't want to compromise people's health when it comes down to trying to remain undefeated when you have your goals locked up," he said during a recent interview.

Already, there's a whiff of trouble ahead.

Top receiver Greg Jennings will miss two to three weeks with a left knee sprain, but is expected back for the playoffs, and two players sustained concussions in last Sunday's rout of Oakland.

A win Sunday against 5-8 Kansas City, which just fired coach Todd Haley, will give the Packers home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Although they lost their most recent postseason game at Lambeau Field for the 2007 NFC title against the Giants, generally the venerable stadium is a den of horrors for visitors. Not having to visit New Orleans or San Francisco in January is highly desirable for the Pack.

Once they've guaranteed that scenario, the Packers' challenge becomes how to approach the postseason. Their last two opponents, both at Lambeau, are division rivals Chicago and Detroit.

Not only are both desperate to grab a wild-card playoff spot, there's likely to be a little more incentive against the Packers.

Bears-Packers is the oldest rivalry in football, and the teams will meet on Christmas night on national TV.

Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was suspended two games for stomping on Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith in their Thanksgiving Day meeting.

Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji sees no benefit in holding back.

"I know coach," he said, referring to Mike McCarthy. "You don't win a Super Bowl by being scared. You just play. That's the message he's preaching. Just play the game because it's the game. That's the way you're supposed to play it. You're not supposed to be playing a game and looking at all of these scenarios of who you want to play. Generally, if you do things the right way, hopefully you get some luck in the injury thing.

"You have to respect the game of football. Obviously, we're in a great position. We're 13-0. We have a lot of things wrapped up. But ultimately you never accomplish anything great by being scared. We have an option to go either way, but if you want to make history and do some things that haven't been done in a while, you have to take a chance."

New England took the chance in 2007, Indianapolis didn't in 2009. Both got to the Super Bowl and lost.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick barely broached the subject of a perfect season even while his team was marching through its schedule. It came up during news conferences, but only when he was asked about it. It did not come up in team meetings or during game-planning sessions or during flights home from the road. According to several players from the `07 squad that went 18-0 before being stunned by the Giants in the Super Bowl, Belichick's approach never wavered.

"Even when we were 12-0 and 14-0, he always preached finishing what we started, finishing the game," said former safety Rodney Harrison, a defensive leader in New England and now an analyst on NBC.

"Bill stressed each week improving and becoming a better football team, so he never really discussed 16-0. Instead, he pointed it out on tape what we can do to get better."

Actually, the Patriots struggled a bit in the final weeks of 2007, even as they were going all-out. After routing virtually everyone in the first half of the schedule, they won three games by a field goal down the stretch, and neither playoff victory was lopsided.

Still, they've never questioned the path they chose.

"Pressure is self-inflicted. It's how you handle it," veteran running back Kevin Faulk said. "It's what we deal with. We're professional athletes. You're going to be put in pressure situations. You just did what you had to do each and every week: go out there and win a football game."

Indianapolis focused on staying healthy at the expense of making history. At 14-0 and leading the Jets 29-15 at halftime, coach Jim Caldwell sat Peyton Manning and many other regulars. The Colts dropped that one, and their final regular-season game in 2009. They turned up the heat for the playoffs, but lost to New Orleans in the Super Bowl.

Star defensive end Dwight Freeney hates the perception created by resting the starters.

"People were like, `You have the backups in there, so you're trying to lose,'" Freeney said. "You're not trying to lose.

"We didn't full throttle go after it, but we still wanted to win those games. Maybe they didn't put us in the best position or whatever, but it's not like we weren't trying to win. We were still trying to win and it didn't happen."

Green Bay is well aware of all the story lines.

"We'd like to win the Super Bowl," Matthews said. "So if that means winning every game, then so be it."

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AP Sports Writers Chris Jenkins in Green Bay, Wis., Howard Ulman in Foxborough, Mass., and Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this story.

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