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NFC North gets tighter as rivalries finally start

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NFC North gets tighter as rivalries finally start

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) The NFC North is exactly what the NFL had in mind when it backloaded the schedule with division games.

The top three teams - the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings - are all still very much alive in the playoff hunt. Better yet, with only two games separating the teams and four games left between them, no one is anywhere close to clinching the division title.

``They count as double,'' Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said. ``Everyone is a game ahead or a game behind, so each game is going to be very important.''

Taking a tip from baseball and its captivating pennant races, the NFL began stacking division games at the end of the season last year. Oh, there would still be the occasional team that would run away with its division, wrap things up before the calendar hit December (yes, Denver and Atlanta, we're talking about you). But most teams would still be in the thick of it, making the games in the final month of the season more meaningful - and more exciting.

A win one week, and a team could be on top the division. A loss the next, and they're scrambling for the wild card. What's not to love about that?

``That's why they structure it like that,'' Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. ``It's like we're in the playoffs right now.''

Not that the NFC North needed any help making its matchups more riveting.

The NFC North rivalries have never been what you'd describe as friendly. Oh, the atmosphere is mellower than when Curly Lambeau and George Halas refused to shake hands after their games. But the teams are too close in proximity and have too much history to be just another week on the schedule.

``It's the Vikings,'' Pickett said of Green Bay's game this Sunday. ``And we don't like the Vikings.''

That goes double for the fans. Midwesterners may be warm and friendly, but they're as provincial as any on the East Coast. Their teams are like an extension of their families, making the twice-a-season meetings with their border rivals as heated as a holiday feud. That Cheesehead nickname Wisconsinites have come to embrace? It was originally an insult by Illinoisans. There's a reason Green Bay fans could live with Brett Favre playing for the Jets but couldn't stomach the sight of him in a Vikings jersey.

Beat the snobby neighbor to the south (or north or east or west) and it's worth an entire summer of bragging rights. A long winning streak is often considered evidence of an entire state's superiority.

Add playoff implications into the mix, and the fiery rivalries could become downright combustible.

``I asked them this exact question: `Do I have to give a motivational speech to get us ready for THIS game?'' said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, who counts as something of an expert, having spent his playing career with the Bears.

``When you're playing a divisional rival, those guys understand the implications and what has to get done. At this level, if you can't get excited about this opportunity, you're in the wrong business.''

Particularly with so much at stake.

The Packers (7-4) are a game in front of the Vikings (6-5). They play twice in the final five weeks of the season, Sunday in Green Bay and the Dec. 30 season finale in Minneapolis. Both teams also have a game left against the Bears, who lost to Green Bay in September and beat Minnesota last week.

Do the math, and the division standings could be turned upside-down every week from here on out. So, too, the wild-card race, where Green Bay leads and Minnesota is locked in a tie with Seattle and Tampa Bay.

``These are the ones that you live for. These are the ones that, when you're playing in pee wee, you dream about, playing in the NFL against your rival,'' Christian Ponder said. ``Vikings-Green Bay, that's a huge game and obviously what's at stake makes it even bigger.''

Green Bay has won its last nine games against its NFC North brethren, a franchise-record streak that dates back to December 2010. You have to go back another year for the Packers' last division loss at Lambeau Field, where they have won 23 of their last 25 regular-season games.

The last NFC North team that won in Green Bay? None other than the Vikings.

``We need to get this Green Bay win,'' Frazier said. ``It's important for us and it's no different for them. They need it as much as we do.''

The status of Vikings multi-threat receiver Percy Harvin is doubtful with an ankle injury. But Peterson has put up some big numbers against the Packers, and Green Bay will be without defensive end C.J. Wilson, a cornerstone of the run defense.

The Packers' offense, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to rebound from last weekend's 38-10 beatdown by the New York Giants that was even more lopsided than the score indicated. Aaron Rodgers was sacked five times, giving him an NFL-worst 37 sacks. That's one more than he had all of last season.

But the Packers should get a boost from the return of No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings, who expects to play Sunday after missing the last seven games with a torn abdominal muscle.

And knowing they're facing the Vikings will snap anyone out of a funk.

``Every one of these games is important,'' Rodgers said. ``The NFC is getting tight for the playoff race. Everything's in front of us. If we win out, we win the division, host a playoff game at the very worst. We like where we're at. It wouldn't hurt to have a couple more wins at this point, but we put ourselves in position to make a run, and that's all you can ask for at this time of the season.''

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AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski in Eden Prairie, Minn., contributed to this story.

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