GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) – The New England Patriots are facing the stunning possibility of a three-game losing streak. The Green Bay Packers are trying to calm an unexpected burst of chatter about the playoffs.

But the contrast of gloom in New England and optimism in Green Bay doesn’t jibe with the reality of records and standings. The Patriots are 6-3 and leading the AFC East, a fact Tom Brady brought up twice in an interview session this week.

The Packers (4-5) would need an extension ladder to reach the Chicago Bears in the NFC North standings and only have a fringe hope of contending for the wild card.

But the Packers weren’t expected to do much coming off a 4-12 season with a rookie head coach. The Patriots have won three of the past five Super Bowls and hadn’t lost two games in a row since the end of the 2002 season.

“We’re not used to it,” Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said. “It’s not a good feeling. It’s something that, it just didn’t happen. Usually we come back and get things fixed and it didn’t happen. We expect to do that this week.”

Coming off losses to Indianapolis and the New York Jets at home, the Patriots play the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday. New England has won six straight on the road.

“We’re 6-3 and at the top of our division,” Brady said. “I don’t think we’re going to try to reinvent a bunch of stuff. We lost a game by three points, seven points and (10) points. We haven’t played our best. Hopefully we are going to go out and play our best this week. We’re going to need to. We’re playing against a tough team.”

After opening the season 1-4 under rookie coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers have won three of four games. As improbable as it might sound, a victory over New England would be a huge step toward climbing into playoff contention for the Packers.

But McCarthy isn’t ready to go there, at least not yet.

“Everybody wants to talk about playoffs,” McCarthy said. “I want to talk about getting to 5-5. If you get to 5-5, then you can start thinking about the next one and the one after that. It’s very important for our football team to get to 5-5.”

McCarthy likes the enthusiasm of his young players, but doesn’t want to see them get too loose.

“I think when something gets loose and comfortable, complacency stands in,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think that’s a problem here at all. I think you’re seeing the confidence increase, particularly over the last five weeks. They’re playing better. I wish we were a little healthier, but everyone does at this point of the season. But there’s a lot of positive things happening and I think there’s very good character and chemistry in the locker room right now.”

McCarthy made it clear that any slight hint of playoff optimism is coming from outside the team, and that he doesn’t need to take steps to help his young players keep things in perspective.

“We’re focused on New England,” McCarthy said. “That’s my message and I know that’s our message. You worry about the things you can control.”

The Packers will have to control Brady without ignoring the Patriots’ strong running game.

Green Bay has generated good pass-rush pressure this season. Defensive end Aaron Kampman is second in the league in sacks and the Packers are beginning to use linebackers A.J. Hawk, Nick Barnett and Brady Poppinga in more blitzes.

“We’re giving them more opportunities to make plays,” McCarthy said. “But they’re a young group and they’re getting better each week, and we need to continue to put them in position to make plays.”

Brady has been roughed up in recent games, but could have a chance to make big plays against a Packers secondary that was expected to be one of the team’s biggest strengths, but has been prone to giving up big plays all season.

“I think I try to stand in there as best as I can and keep making the plays if I think I can make them,” Brady said.

Brady also will hand the ball off to rookie Laurence Maroney and veteran Corey Dillon.

“All of our backs, Corey and Kevin (Faulk) and (Maroney) have all been solid and we’ve gotten production out of all those guys,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It’s a good group to work with. They’ve been pretty consistent as a group.”

For the Packers, Brett Favre has drastically cut down his interceptions under McCarthy and the Packers have run the ball well with Ahman Green. But an injury to right tackle Mark Tauscher leaves the Packers with three rookie starters on the offensive line against an aggressive Patriots defense.

“When you play New England, you’ve got to kind of expect the unexpected,” Favre said. “But knowing that they will play their defense and give you some oddball looks and things like that, especially on third downs, and we have to be ready for that – but also keep it as simple as possible for our young guys.”

AP-ES-11-18-06 1356EST



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