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Sherman has Green Bay on rise


Three years ago, the Packers were an old team in decline that had just lost its head coach to Seattle. The future looked bleak for the former Super Bowl champions.

Quickly, new head coach Mike Sherman has restored Green Bay to playoff contention. Of course, it helped that Sherman began his reign with arguably the best quarterback in the game, Brett Favre, but the transformation of the Packers' roster has been significant.

The most significant addition has been fourth-year running back Ahman Green, who was acquired in 2000 in a trade with Seattle and former Packers coach Mike Holmgren. Green began week 11 as the NFL's fourth-leading rusher. He has added power to an offense that was previously built solely on the finesse skills of Favre.

"I would say we have ascended from expectations that people had predicted for us before the season. I think our talent level has improved because of the fact guys are being coached and they listen and learn and they're getting better, and they're buying into what we're saying. This is only the second year we're in this thing. It does take some time," Sherman said of his 7-3 team, which will face the Jaguars at Alltel Stadium this Monday night.

A team that missed the playoffs in 1999 with an 8-8 record is 16-9 since Sherman took control. It is clearly in ascent, with young players such as star pass-rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and linebacker Na'il Diggs leading the way on defense.

Yet, there are Packer doubters. Two of the Packers' seven wins are against winless Detroit and two other wins came against Washington, when it was the joke of the league, and hapless Carolina.

So, the question is: How good are the Packers?

"We're 7-3. That's the main thing," linebacker Bernardo Harris said. "We went through the last two seasons playing good ball and thinking we're a good team and not being able to win games like this and not get to the playoffs," Harris added following the Thanksgiving Day win in Detroit.

One thing hasn't changed in Green Bay. Favre is still the key. As Favre goes, so go the Packers, who sagged along with Favre's passer rating the previous two seasons.

"Everything we hope for this season is still before us," wide receiver Antonio Freeman said.

Favre remains a gambling, big-play quarterback who throws interceptions at an alarming rate. Despite one of the highest passer ratings of his career, Favre's critics say he still tries to force the ball deep too often.

"I've made many more great plays doing what I do than bad plays," Favre said.

And that's not likely to change. Favre will continue to throw touchdowns and interceptions, the key to the Packers' hopes would seem to rest with their continued ability to run the ball and play defense.

The defense is the league's fifth-ranked unit (ninth against the run and seventh against the pass). Those rankings are what is most surprising about the Packers.

Gbaja-Biamila is second in the NFC in sacks, and Vonnie Holiday, Gilbert Brown, Santana Dotson and John Thierry give the Packers a sold and experienced defensive line.

Free safety Darren Sharper is the only Pro-Bowler on the defense, but the secondary has developed into one of the best in the league, featuring cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Tyrone Williams. Bhawoh Jue, a rookie third-round pick from Penn State, was moved into the starting lineup at strong safety for the win on Thanksgiving Day, and Jue responded by making a game-saving play.

In preparing for the Jaguars, the Packers will have had 10 days of rest since their win in Detroit.

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