AFTER THE Packers were swept by the Vikings in two emotionally charged games last season, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers came away thinking the team had been too distracted by his predecessor, Brett Favre.
"The guys in the locker room did a good job staying focused, but there were people in the organization that didn't treat it as another game, when it was another game," Rodgers says. "I think we put too much emphasis on those two."
Says coach Mike McCarthy, "If [Aaron] felt it, then obviously it existed. I probably had them too high for that [first] game. I didn't feel that in the second game—maybe outside the building, [with Favre] coming back to Lambeau with all the buildup—but I'd agree with that going into the first game."
Had the Packers won either of those Minnesota matchups, they would have hosted a divisional playoff game as NFC North champions instead of hitting the road as a wild card. In the latter role they lost a 51--45 overtime crusher in Arizona—"hardest loss I've ever had," says running back Ryan Grant. In many ways the Packers were two teams last season: the one that started 4--4 and dropped two to the Vikes, and the one that finished 7--1 and looked like a world-beater.
Part of last season's sluggish start can be linked to the defense's switch from a 4--3 to a 3--4 scheme. Expect a quicker start in 2010 with another year of coordinator Dom Capers's system under the players' belts. "We tried to come out fast and furious as an offense early in  to give our defense time to develop, and the sacks just killed us," McCarthy says. "We had so many negative plays. Once we got that corrected, we did some great things on offense, and the defense came around and played good football. Last year was a learning experience that you can draw from, the positive and the negative. [But] this is a new team."
Green Bay's strong finishing kick has created a Super Bowl aura around the team for 2010, but a few questions remain. Will the offensive line, which gave up 51 sacks, hold up? Can the secondary, with Charles Woodson (age 33) and Al Harris (35) at the corners, stay healthy? Can the Pack overcome its Favre complex?
Green Bay was typically quiet in the off-season, keeping its core mostly intact, shying away from the free-agent market and adding pieces through the draft. First-round pick Bryan Bulaga, an offensive tackle from Iowa, had such a terrific training camp and preseason that he was pushing for a starting job at left guard. The next two picks, defensive end Mike Neal out of Purdue and safety Morgan Burnett from Georgia Tech, are also expected to contribute, with Burnett slated to begin the season as a starter in place of the injured Atari Bigby. Finding young talent and getting it on the field has been Green Bay's dominant philosophy under McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson.
"We are a draft-and-develop team," McCarthy says. "It doesn't mean we don't ever want to go out into free agency, but we feel if we're drafting and developing them the right way, our team will improve."
Rodgers, 26, is the prime example of the Packer Way: He slipped to No. 24 in the 2005 draft and is now an elite player in this golden age of quarterbacks. In his two years as a starter Rodgers has thrown for 8,472 yards, with 58 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. "He's in total control of our offense," McCarthy says. "We've given him all the responsibilities. There hasn't been a quarterback that I've coached or coordinated that has as much responsibility as he does."
McCarthy, of course, used to coach Favre. For the Pack, winning the NFC North and starting a Super Bowl run may come down to how they fare against him.