Packers return, Vikings next
But with the Packers at 6-3 and tied atop the NFC North division despite a raft of injuries, McCarthy wasn't complaining Monday as players returned to practice following a full week off.
"This year has definitely been a different challenge for us. We needed this bye," said McCarthy, whose teams are 3-1 in games following the bye week. "We do want to pick up where we left off as far as winning. That's the most important thing, don't get me wrong. I'm stating the obvious here. But more importantly, we need to improve.
"To have a pretty healthy football team to me has always been the focus coming out of the bye. You've got to play your best football in November and December. That's always been our plan."
The Packers enter Sunday's game at Minnesota with a chance to bury quarterback Brett Favre and the struggling Vikings (3-6) in the division while also being in the thick of the race for the NFC's top spot in the wide-open conference.
The Packers are tied with the Chicago Bears (6-3) in the division, but only Atlanta (7-2) has a better record in the NFC.
McCarthy acknowledged that a Week 6 or Week 7 bye would mean playing nine or 10 straight regular-season games leading into the playoffs, which would be challenging. Instead, the Packers have seven regular-season games remaining, including four road games (at the Vikings on Sunday, at Atlanta on Nov. 28, at Detroit on Dec. 12 and at New England on Dec. 19) in the next five weeks. They end their season with home games against the Giants (Dec. 26) and Bears (Jan. 2).
"There's nothing like November and December football. I think this is what it's all about," McCarthy said. "We have to win our division games. The ones on the road are always the toughest, and that will be the case in Minnesota on Sunday."
Despite all of the Vikings' woes, from Favre's myriad of injuries and up-and-down play to coach Brad Childress' job status, the Packers say they won't take the Vikings lightly after losing both matchups with them last season. The Packers beat the Vikings, 28-24, at Lambeau Field on Oct. 24.
"They're in a situation where they have to win. So we expect their best," safety Atari Bigby said. "We've got to be on our game this week."
It should help that the Packers are healthier than they've been all season. While veteran right tackle Mark Tauscher (shoulder) became the sixth starter to land on season-ending injured reserve during the bye week, they could have their full 53-man roster to choose from when making game-day decisions Sunday.
The only players who did not practice Monday were defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle), outside linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring/shin), tight end Andrew Quarless (shoulder) and wide receiver Donald Driver (quadriceps), although McCarthy said Driver was excused for a personal matter.
Pickett originally sprained his ankle Oct. 10 at Washington and reinjured it against the Vikings and again against the Cowboys. Pickett would seem to be the only player in danger of not playing against the Vikings, although McCarthy said he hopes Pickett will practice on Thursday.
"I'm feeling pretty good but I'm not sure if I'm going to go yet," Pickett said. "I have to feel like I can make it through a full game."
Beyond getting healthy, McCarthy and his staff made harshly critiquing themselves and the team's play their top priority during the bye. Now, they'll see if they can improve.
"I read our profile to the team today, what we look like to the rest of the league as far as where we rank statistically, but more importantly, how we can improve," McCarthy said. "We have a profile of our offense, of our defense, of our special teams.
"I feel a lot better than I did here last week."
NOTES: McCarthy said Tauscher is tentatively scheduled to undergo surgery on his shoulder on Tuesday. McCarthy said he spoke Monday with veteran cornerback Al Harris, whom the team released last week. Harris signed with Miami and played for the Dolphins on Sunday.