GREEN BAY, Wis. – Brett Favre was chuckling after his graceless attempt at a celebratory Lambeau Leap on Sunday. More important, he’s no longer serving as the NFL’s Midwest distribution center for interceptions.

Wide receiver Donald Driver is even talking (cue squeaky Jim Mora voice) playoffs?

Perhaps no team in the NFL has shown as much improvement from Week 1 to midseason as the Green Bay Packers, who lost four of their first five games, but now have won two straight.

And with a very winnable game at Buffalo on Sunday, the Packers (3-4) could equal their victory total from last season before the Lambeau grass becomes tundra, and – gasp! – reach the .500 mark.

This is a big deal in Green Bay, only because so little was expected out of a young team with a relatively unknown rookie head coach.

But is the Packers’ momentum swing an indication Mike McCarthy is engineering a turnaround, or simply a function of a schedule that’s as squishy-soft as the foam they use to make cheeseheads?

The Packers’ three victories have come against Detroit, Miami and Arizona, teams with a combined 3-19 record.

“A win is a win,” Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said. “I don’t care if we win against Green Bay High.”

Green Bay High? Hey, at least then the Packers might be favored.

But after playing the Bills, the Packers go to Minnesota – where Favre couldn’t win when the Packers had players you’ve heard of – then play New England at home.

McCarthy seems to be cautioning against irrational exuberance. Asked Sunday how he expected his team to handle success, McCarthy responded, “I don’t know if we’re quite to that point right now.”

McCarthy, a former Packers quarterbacks coach who went on to become the offensive coordinator in New Orleans and San Francisco, wasn’t on many coaching search short lists in the offseason.

But he was on the only list that mattered, the one put together by Packers general Ted Thompson, who lauded his new coach as “Pittsburgh macho” in January.

The Steel City native’s most macho move so far has been talking Favre into playing another season, then reining him in. The three-time MVP seems to have bought into McCarthy’s controlled passing game, and McCarthy has offered mild public criticism when Favre has thrown the ball up for grabs.

After throwing a career-worst 29 interceptions last year – a performance that looked at times like a passive-aggressive protest over his lack of a supporting cast – Favre has thrown only five this season and is pick-free in his past three games.

Another modest triumph for the coach: McCarthy and offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski have taught a new zone blocking scheme (think Denver Broncos) to an offensive line that starts two rookie guards. That’s no small feat, particularly when you consider they can’t really practice those controversial “cut” blocks against their own guys’ legs during the week.

Ahman Green, coming off a season-ending ruptured quadriceps, and backup Vernand Morency each gained more than 100 yards rushing against Arizona on Sunday, a major confidence boost for the Pack.

“It’s not over,” Driver said. “We’re still in the hunt. I think a lot of people kind of ruled us out. But the Pack is back.”

Better? Perhaps. Back? Not until the Packers prove they can run and pass without turning it over against decent teams. And will the defense, which won at Miami despite giving up more than 400 yards passing to Joey Harrington, be able to stop anybody?

For all McCarthy’s success on offense, his biggest missteps have come on defense.

McCarthy came in emphasizing offseason workouts, declaring he was going to “change the culture.” The comment was interpreted as a backhanded swipe at former coach Mike Sherman – who, by the way, was fired because he was a bad general manager, not because he was a bad coach.

But then McCarthy couldn’t persuade his star cornerbacks to show up for voluntary workouts. Al Harris was (and is) unhappy with his contract, and Woodson worked out at home. Then free agent safety Marquand Manuel sat out training camp with an injury.

So Packers defensive backs were still getting to know each other in Week 1, and it showed. They gave up a stunning seven touchdowns of 25 yards or more in their first four games.

Tom Brady must be salivating.

Even Favre, who raised eyebrows in training camp when he proclaimed this team the most talented he has ever played on, doesn’t seem convinced that things have turned around.

“We’re not that good of a football team,” Favre said. “We can be. Whether it’s this year, whether it’s next year, I don’t know.”

Next year? Is the world’s toughest diva calling off months of retirement speculation and declaring his intention to play in 2007?

Um no.

“Next year is a long ways away and I’m not going to get into that,” he said. “But right now I’m happy we won, I’m happy I’m still standing and we’ll see what happens next week.”


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