Packers-49ers Preview

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"Even" (or .500, for that matter) seldom has looked so good...

Now 5-5 in the wake of a critical road victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Green Bay Packers have forged to within one game of NFC North-leading Minnesota and materially enhanced their playoff chances, the 6-4 Vikings having lost their fourth straight in the productive weekend process.

Thus reinforced, the Packers also will enjoy home field advantage when they continue their pursuit of playoff status this weekend, hosting the San Francisco 49ers in an inter-divisional matchup at Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon (Nov. 23).

Kickoff for the contest, a customary season ticket sellout (72,515), is set for 12 noon, CST (Wisconsin time).

It will be the first of two games within a five-day span for the Green and Gold, who invade Detroit's Ford Field a week from Thursday (Nov. 27) for a Thanksgiving Day encounter with the Lions.

For the Packers, heartening as the victory over Tampa Bay itself was, the efficient and aggressive fashion in which it was accomplished was equally rewarding, looking down the competitive road.

Locked in a 13-13 tie with the Buccaneers, they mounted a late, length-of-the-field drive to what became the winning touchdown with a remarkable display of "smash-mouth" football and thus depart Tampa's Raymond James Stadium with a victory - a new experience for them, having lost their first five games in the Bucs' new venue, opened in 1998.

In the course of the weekend, the Packers also increased their lead over division rivals Chicago and Detroit to two games. Both of them are now 3-7, the Bears after losing to St. Louis, 23-21, and the Lions after falling to the Seattle Seahawks, 35-14.

THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Dick Stockton will call the play-by-play for the Fox Sports Network telecast of Sunday's game and Daryl Johnston will provide the analysis. Bob Stenner is the producer and Sandy Grossman directs.

The game also will be aired over the 62-station Packers Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee voicing the play-by-play and Larry McCarren offering analysis and commentary. The radio broadcast also will be available on www.packers.com for NFL Field Pass subscribers.

THE SERIES: For the first time within recent memory, the Packers take a won-lost lead to Lambeau Field Sunday. By virtue of a 20-14 victory over the Prospectors in their visit to San Francisco last December, they now are out front in the series, having won 26 games to the Niners' 25.

There also has been a tie - a 24-24 stalemate in their mutual 1965 finale that looms large in Packers history.

A rare run of success has enabled the Packers to pull ahead in the rivalry of late. Last December's success, on a blustery, rain-swept afternoon in the City by the Bay, was the Packers' fifth straight win over the 49ers - matching their longest such streak in the history of the series.

With postseason play included, it was their ninth win in their last 10 meetings with San Francisco.

Four of those victories came in as many successive seasons - 1995 through 1998 - and the fifth more recently - in January of 2002 when Mike Sherman escorted the Packers to the playoffs in only his second season as Green Bay's head coach, the Green and Gold posting a 25-15 Wild Card victory.

The Packers had the better of it in the first three of those four consecutive postseason encounters, launching the "trifecta" with a highly physical, 27-17 divisional playoff victory over the 49ers in San Francisco following the '95 season.

They followed that success with a 35-14 triumph in a second divisional playoff in Lambeau Field en route to the 1996 Super Bowl and then forged a 23-10 verdict in their rain-soaked NFC Championship Game at 3Com following the 1997 season, a victory that qualified Green Bay for a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance (in SB XXXII at San Diego).

The "streak" came to an end in 1998 in another visit to 3Com for a Wild Card playoff against the Niners. On that occasion, the disbelieving Packers saw a 27-23 lead suddenly dissolve into a 30-27 San Francisco victory - with only 3 seconds remaining - in the numbing wake of a 25-yard Steve Young pass to wide receiver Terrell Owens in the heart of the end zone.

The lone tie in the series played a substantial role in Packers history. The 24-24 standoff left them and the Baltimore Colts tied for Western Conference honors with identical 10-3-1 records, forcing a playoff in Green Bay.

The ensuing playoff became the first overtime game in Green Bay's annals, the Green and Gold eventually prevailing, 13-10, by way of Don Chandler's 25-yard field at 13:39 of the sudden death overtime.

THE COACHES: Unswervingly committed and impeccably prepared, Mike Sherman has made a profound impact on Packers history in three-and-a-half years as the 13th head coach in the team's storied annals.

First and foremost, the purposeful New Englander has officiated at more victories in his first three seasons (33) than any other head coach in team history - more than team founder Curly Lambeau (14), more than Vince Lombardi (26) and more than Mike Holmgren (27), the other winning head coaches in club annals.

Beyond that, after 3-1/2 seasons, he already has won more career games (38) than eight of his 12 predecessors as Green Bay's field leader.

In the process, he likewise has entrenched himself in what has become a greatly expanded role (he added the titles of executive vice president and general manager to his résumé in 2001 after just one year as head coach).

Along the way, he has led the Packers to three consecutive winning seasons and, in 2002, to its first division championship since 1997 en route to a second straight playoff berth, earning Sherman Staples 'Coach of the Year' laurels for the '02 season.

Executing the additional duties with typically total commitment - and literally without missing a beat - he maneuvered the Packers to back-to-back 12-4 records in 2001 and 2002, the Green and Gold thus becoming the winningest team in the NFL over that two-year span (24-8) Moreover, the 12-4 marks have been exceeded by only four teams in the club's 82-year NFL history and the 12-12 parlay was only the second such coupling (12 or more victories in successive years) in team annals.

The possessor of a 38-20 record heading into Sunday's matchup with San Francisco, the 48-year-old Northborough, Mass., native has rivaled the accomplishments of the fabled Lombardi over a comparable span, compiling a 33-15-0 record in his first three-years (16-game campaigns) as opposed to Lombardi's 26-12-0 mark over a similar stretch (two 12-game seasons and one 14-game campaign) while serving as the Packers' head coach and general manager (1959-61).

Sherman also matched another Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season (2001) at the controls.

In the overall process, he has made Lambeau Field an uncomfortable place to visit for NFL rivals. Since establishing residence at 1265 Lombardi Avenue, the Packers have forged an imposing 23-6 record in "Lambeau" under his leadership - the best regular season home record during that span, including the league's only perfect home record (8-0) in 2002.

The first man in a half-century to shoulder his tri-cornered roles - since founder Lambeau functioned as vice president, general manager and head coach in 1949 - Sherman brings multiple credentials to his responsibilities. They include a Super Bowl following the 1997 season during which he was a member of the Holmgren coaching staff that led the Packers into SBXXXII against the Denver Broncos at San Diego.

It was to be the first of three consecutive years in the playoffs for Sherman, who returned to the postseason with the Packers in 1998 and as the offensive coordinator on Holmgren's staff Seattle in 1999.

Now in his 26th year in his profession, Sherman launched his coaching career at Stamford, Conn., High School, and went on to coach in the college ranks for 16 years, including one year as offensive coordinator at Holy Cross and terms as offensive line coach at such highly regarded programs as UCLA and Texas A&M.

Dennis Erickson, who became the 14th head coach in 49ers history on Feb. 12, 2003, previously spent four seasons (1995-98) with Seattle, where he coached the Seahawks to a 31-33 record and helped the franchise bounce back from four consecutive losing seasons.

The Seahawks enjoyed their most productive season on offense under Erickson in 1997, leading the NFL in passing offense (274.4 yards per game). The defense improved as well, placing eighth in the NFL, making Seattle one of only four teams to place in the top 10 on both sides of the ball.

Erickson, a two-time, first-team All-Big Sky Conference quarterback at Montana State, began his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater (1971-73), Idaho (1974-75), Fresno State (1976-78), and San Jose State (1979-81).

He subsequently was named head coach at Idaho (1982-85), where he posted a 32-15 record. Erickson spent one season at Wyoming (1986) and two years as head coach at Washington State (1987-88) before moving on to Miami (1989-94). Erickson won two National Championships (1989 and 1991) with the Hurricanes, becoming one of 15 college coaches to win multiple titles. His 63-9 (.875) record at Miami was the best in the nation during his six-year tenure.

Erickson, who is 56, took over the Oregon State program in 1999, leading the Beavers to their first-ever 11-win season in 2000, earning a share of the Pacific-10 Conference Championship, a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, and a No. 4 national ranking. His 144 collegiate victories at the collegiate level ranked him ninth among active coaches prior to accepting the position with the 49ers.

THE LAST TIME: Quarterback Brett Favre, again proving himself a masterful mudder under challenging conditions, passed for 201 yards in a steady downpour and the Packers' defense stopped one last rain-soaked drive at their own 11-yard line with 22 seconds left to pull out a 20-14 victory over the 49ers in their 2002 invasion of 49ers Stadium (Dec. 15).

En route, Ahman Green ran for 90 yards and a touchdown and Donald Driver caught a touchdown pass as the Packers shrugged off the pelting rain and swirling wind to score 17 points in the second half while holding San Francisco scoreless in the fourth quarter.

The Packers (11-3) thus won their third straight while limiting the 49ers' formidable offense to 263 yards and earning home field advantage in any possible playoff meeting between the teams.

After placekicker Ryan Longwell's 28-yard field goal with 4:41 left put Green Bay up 20-14, quarterback Jeff Garcia drove the 49ers from their 26 to the Green Bay 11 before throwing three incompletions, including a low throw under pressure to Eric Johnson on fourth down.

San Francisco's Terrell Owens caught 8 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown - which he punctuated with a pompom-waving celebration - but the 49ers struggled to move the ball.

The Packers immediately took control after halftime, and Favre broke through a conservative game plan to thrown downfield. He led a 79-yard drive from the kickoff, with Green scoring on a 9-yard run.

When San Francisco regained possession, Garcia threw a pass as he was being tackled - and it ricocheted off the back of offensive guard Matt Willig and into the hands of Packers defensive end Vonnie Holliday, who lateraled the ball to linebacker Na'il Diggs for a long return.

Favre then struck again, hitting Driver for a 5-yard TD that put Green Bay up, 17-6.

Statistically, it was a relatively close affair, the Packers emerging with a 40-yard edge (302 to 263) but the Green and Gold had a marked advantage in time of possession, controlling the football for 36 minutes, 3 seconds to the 49ers; 23 minutes, 57 seconds.

Much of the latter was traceable to Favre, the author of a remarkably efficient performance under the capricious conditions. He emerged from the soggy session with an imposing 100.7 quarterback rating, based upon 25 completions in 33 attempts for 201 yards and a touchdown - without an interception.

In winning, the Packers overcame a halftime deficit on the road for only the sixth time since 1991.

THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: Running back Ahman Green, who appears en route to the biggest year of his highly productive career, continues to dominate NFL and National Football Conference statistics following another strong effort in Sunday's victory over Tampa Bay.

But this week, he has to share the statistical spotlight with his fellow members of the offensive unit.

Green, rushing for 109 yards in 21 attempts and adding three pass receptions for 15 more, remains the league leader in total yards from scrimmage with 1,500 (1,172 rushing and 328 receiving).

He also:

* Leads the NFC in rushing (1,172 yards in 222 attempts, a 5.3-yard average)

* Is tied for the NFL in non-kicker scoring with 84 points on 14 touchdowns (10 rushing and 4 receiving) (KC's Priest Holmes also has 84 points)

* Leads the NFL in first downs with 83 (67 rushing and 16 receiving)

* Owns a perfect (100.0) rating in third-and-one rushing with a 6-for-6 conversion record

* Is tied for 19th place among NFC receivers with a team-leading 41 catches.

Green's 192 rushing yards against the Philadelphia Eagles (Nov. 10) also remains the NFC's best such performance to date.

The Green and Gold's offense, meanwhile, has swept into the NFC lead in rushing after another standout performance Sunday (190 yards in 38 attempts, a 5.0-yard average) against Tampa Bay.

The Green Bay offense also continues to lead the NFC in offense 'inside the 20,' producing touchdowns on 71.9 percent of drives (23 TDs on 32 possessions) - and in production on first down plays with an average gain of 5.87 yards for 286 plays.

The Packers rank 25th in the NFL in passing and on defense as a whole (20th against the run and 27th against the pass).

Quarterback Brett Favre, second a week ago, now ranks fourth among NFC passers with an 86.0 rating, based upon 196 completions in 302 attempts for 1,924 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions.

Favre also ranks sixth in NFC third-down passing with a 74.9 rating, based upon 53 completions in 88 attempts for 517 yards and 7 touchdowns, with 6 interceptions and ninth in fourth-quarter passing with a 75.3 rating, based upon 48 completions in 76 attempts for 456 yards and 4 TDs, with 4 INTs.

Rookie linebacker Nick Barnett is in a 13-way tie for 6th place among NFC interceptors with 3 and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is tied for 10th in quarterback sacks with 5.

Placekicker Ryan Longwell is tied with John Carney of New Orleans for fourth place in conference scoring with 70 points (13 field goals in 14 attempts and 31 consecutive PATs) and punter Josh Bidwell stands seventh among NFC punters in both gross (41.8) and net (35.8) averages.

Fellow specialist Antonio Chatman ranks eighth among punt returners with a 9.6-yard average for 18 returns and 11th in kickoff returns with a 22.3-yard average for 26 runbacks.

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