The NFC North Champion Green Bay Packers, 10-3 and very much in the postseason picture after maintaining their playoff status with a second straight victory, resume pursuit of "full" home field advantage on the road this weekend.
Their late-season itinerary will take them to San Francisco Sunday (Dec. 15) for an inter-divisional showdown with the 49ers (9-4), newly-crowned champions of the NFC West, in 49ers Stadium.
Kickoff for the contest is set for 3:15, CST (Wisconsin time).
The Packers, who clinched the NFC North title a week earlier, will be coming off another come-from-behind triumph, having finally taken the lead for the first time in the game with just 1:06 remaining, a 14-yard touchdown run by sealing a 26-22 Green Bay victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
It marked the sixth time in seven Lambeau Field games this season that the Green and Gold have come from behind to win - en route to what remains the league's only perfect home record (7-0), with one "Lambeau" date remaining against Buffalo Dec. 22.
With respect to home field advantage, the Packers already are assured of hosting one postseason game but have not clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In this competition they currently remain behind the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, likewise possessors of 10-3 records, on the basis of tie-breakers, the Eagles because of a better conference record and the Buccaneers because they defeated the Packers in their Nov. 24 meeting (21-7) and thus hold the edge, head-to-head.
As the current third seed, the Packers' surest route to home field advantage throughout the playoffs to win all three of their remaining games and both Philadelphia and Tampa Bay to lose one of their last three.
Green Bay (10-3): at San Francisco; vs. Buffalo; at New York Jets.
Philadelphia (10-3): vs. Washington; at Dallas; at New York Giants.
Tampa Bay (10-3): at Detroit; vs. Pittsburgh; at Chicago.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Joe Buck will call the play-by-play for the Fox Sports Network's telecast of Sunday's game, with Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth providing the analysis and Pam Oliver reporting from the field.
The game also will be broadcast by the Packer Radio Network (Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren) and nationally by Westwood One/CBS Radio, with Harry Kalas voicing the play-by-play and Allen Pinkett as the analyst. The Packers Radio Network broadcast also will be available on the internet via www.packers.com.
THE DECEMBER DATA: Following Sunday's latest success, the Packers have improved their December record for the past 11 years to 33-10, a .767 percentage, the best in the NFL for the month over that span.
Within those numbers, the Packers own the best home record for December over the same period (20-2, .909 percentage).
Additionally, GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman continues to be undefeated at home in the final month of the year. He is now 7-0 in Lambeau Field December games since taking over as Green Bay's head coach in 2000.
THE SERIES: Although the Packers and 49ers operate in different divisions, the NFC North and the NFC West, respectively, they are hardly strangers, competitively speaking.
As a matter of fact, Sunday's matchup in San Francisco's 49ers Stadium will find them having at it for the ninth time in the last eight years. It should be promptly noted, of course, that five of those meetings were the product of their mutual regular season success, all five of them having been playoff encounters...over the past seven years.
Four of those showdowns came in as many successive seasons - 1995 through 1998 - and the fifth just last January, when Mike Sherman escorted the Packers to the playoffs in only his second season as Green Bay's head coach.
The Packers prevailed in the first three of those four consecutive postseason encounters, launching the "trifecta" with a highly physical, 27-17 divisional playoff victory over the Prospectors in San Francisco after the '95 season.
The Green and Gold 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).
That impressive "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 touchdown pass to wide receiver Terrell Owens in the heart of the end zone.
The Packers regained the upper hand in last January's Wild Card playoff, defeating the Californians, 25-15, in Lambeau Field.
From the playoff perspective, the Packers have been involved in eight postseason tiebreakers since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 and the last three of those occasions have been to separate the Packers from the 49ers (1995, 1997, 2001).
Although the regular season series between Sunday's principals is all even, the Packers have had considerable success against the 49ers of late, having won eight of their last nine meetings. In addition to the four postseason successes, the Green and Gold also have won their last four regular-season encounters.
Three of the latter came in Lambeau Field - 23-20 in overtime in 1996 on the way to Super bowl XXXI, 36-22 in 1998 and 31-28, in 2000, when the Packers edged the Niners on a late, 35-yard field goal by Ryan Longwell. The 1999 contest saw the Packers defeat the 49ers, 20-3, in San Francisco on Monday Night Football.
The regular series between the longtime rivals - they met for the first time in 1950 - is deadlocked, each team having won 25 of their previous 51 meetings. There also has been one tie, a 24-24 standoff played in 1965 which played a substantial role in Packers history. It left them and the then-Baltimore Colts tied for Western Conference honors with identical 10-3-1 records at season's end, 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 goal at 13:39 of the sudden death overtime.
THE HEAD COACHES: A model of preparation, organization and commitment, Mike Sherman has set and maintained high levels of success with his thoroughgoing approach.
In so doing, he has continuously approximated or paralleled the accomplishments of the storied Vince Lombardi's 1959-62 pace, having mounted an imposing 31-14 record in his first 45 regular season games, compared to the latter's 33-12 mark at the same stage of his Green Bay career.
At least as impressive, amid the parameters of team history, Sherman has become only the fourth of the 13 head coaches in the team's 82-year annals to forge a winning career record. In the process, he has joined an exclusive fraternity - one whose members additionally include only team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
En route, the purposeful New Englander also has matched another major Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the NFL playoffs in his second season as head coach. And, beyond that, he also has gone up on him by escorting the Packers to victory in his first postseason appearance. The latter is an accomplishment that eluded Lombardi, who lost his initial playoff game as Green Bay's field leader.
When a head coach for the first time, just a year earlier, Sherman had debuted auspiciously by leading the Packers to a 9-7 record, a season impressively culminated by a sweep of Green Bay's four NFC Central Division rivals (Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and Tampa Bay), a singular achievement.
Despite assuming the additional and formidable responsibilities of executive vice president and general manager following Ron Wolf's unexpected retirement, he next guided the Packers to a glittering 12-4 record in 2001, a single-season victory total exceeded by only three teams in the club's 82-year annals.
Sherman then proceeded to extrapolate upon that significant success by leading his team to a 25-15 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in a Wild Card playoff before seeing the Packers fall to the Super Bowl-bound St. Louis Rams in a Divisional playoff (45-17).
The first man in a half-century of Packers history to assume his multiple responsibilities - since pioneer Lambeau last functioned in those capacities in 1949 - Sherman brings impressive credentials to this tri-cornered role. They include a Super Bowl following the 1997 season, during which he was a member of the Mike Holmgren staff that led the Packers into SB XXXI against the Denver Broncos at San Diego.
The latter was to be the first of three consecutive years in the playoffs for the tireless Central Connecticut State University alumnus, who returned to the postseason with the Packers in 1998 and as the offensive coordinator on Holmgren's Seattle staff in 1999.
Sherman, now in his 25th year in the coaching profession, began his coaching career at Stamford, Conn., High School in 1978. He went on to coach in the college ranks for 16 years - among them one year as offensive coordinator at Holy Cross and terms as offensive line coach at such highly respected programs as UCLA and Texas A&M.
From the head coaching perspective, there is an interesting sidelight to Sunday's contest. On the home sideline, presiding over the 49ers' on-field fortunes, will be Steve Mariucci, who grew up a devout Packers loyalist in Iron Mountain, Mich., situated just 100 miles north of Green Bay, and was quarterbacks coach for the Green and Gold (1992-95) prior to becoming San Francisco's head coach in 1997.
Mariucci, who spent a transitional year as head coach at the University of California-Berkeley in 1996 before taking over the 49ers, has had significant success as the Prospectors' field leader. He has compiled a 56-37 won-lost record in his five-plus seasons, and is one of only three coaches in league history to win 12 games in each of his first two seasons.
His 25 victories in those two seasons also represent the second-best two-year start in league annals, trailing only George Seifert's 28-4 mark.
During that same span, Mariucci set an NFL record for the fastest start at home in league annals, winning his first 18 games and eclipsing the 13-0 record of John Madden with Oakland in 1969-70. It included an 8-0 regular-season record at home, the latter the first such home mark for the 49ers since joining the NFL in 1950.
En route, Mariucci led San Francisco to the NFC West title in his first season and became one of only 13 head coaches to accomplish the feat directly out of the college ranks. He again had them in the playoffs following his second season in 1998.
As a college athlete, Mariucci led Northern Michigan University to the greatest turnaround in college football history. After the Wildcats posted an 0-10 record in 1974, Mariucci quarterbacked them to a 13-1 record and the 1975 NCAA Division II national championship.
Mariucci, incidentally, is one of nine current NFL head coaches who have previously spent time in Green Bay (the most by any team). The others: Andy Reid (Philadelphia), Mike Holmgren (Seattle), Tom Coughlin, (Jacksonville), Dick Jauron (Chicago), Marty Mornhinweg (Detroit), Dick LeBeau (Cincinnati), Jon Gruden (Tampa Bay) and Mike Sherman.
THE LAST TIME: It took the Packers a half to get untracked in their most recent encounter with the 49ers - in their Wild Card playoff in Lambeau Field last January 13 - but once they did, everything went essentially according to "plan."
The initial problem was an obvious one - the Packers had only 19 offensive plays during the first 30 minutes of the game, at which point they trailed San Francisco 7-6 heading into the intermission.
The solution: Turning quarterback Brett Favre loose.
Favre, settling into a familiar rhythm immediately following the second half kickoff, maneuvered the Green and Gold 72 yards in 12 plays to trigger a 26-yard Ryan Longwell field goal that sent them into a 9-7 lead.
The next time he had the football in his hand, the freewheeling Mississippian did even better, getting the Packers into the end zone in just 4 plays, covering 81 yards. The major item en route was a 51-yard Favre hookup with wide receiver Corey Bradford down the east sideline, a bomb which carried Green Bay all the way to the 49ers' 19-yard line.
On the next play, Favre saw Bubba Franks change his route, veering to the middle of the field, and fired a liner to him for the score as No. 88 crossed into the end zone.
There was, however, a subsequent twinge of uneasiness on the home sideline, when a bid for a 2-point conversion, on a pass to wideout Donald Driver, was complete but failed when he did not reach the end zone, leaving Green Bay up, 15-7.
Early in the fourth quarter, the 49ers staged a major march of their own, moving 61 yards in 6 plays for their second touchdown of the game by way of a 14-yard Jeff Garcia pass to wide receiver Tai Streets, following which the same duo collaborated on a 2-point conversion to forge a 15-15 tie.
Favre promptly went back to work, moving the Packers 49 yards in 10 plays to set up a 45-yard Longwell field goal for an 18-15 Green Bay lead.
The 49ers, appearing bent upon expeditious retaliation, quickly posted a pair of first downs while reaching the Packers' 41-yard line to establish a looming threat. Here, however, the Green and Gold pulled off the play of the game.
Cornerback Mike McKenzie, sprinting from behind, lunged to tip a Garcia pass away from the 49ers' Terrell Owens and left toward Williams, his fellow cornerback. Williams pulled in the football at the 7-yard line. He was immediately tackled by Owens but, with only 4:53 remaining, the game was essentially over.
Favre then proceeded to basically run out of the clock by presiding over the longest scoring drive of the afternoon, a 93-yard march culminated by Ahman Green's 9-yard bolt off right tackle.
Head Coach Mike Sherman, speaking with something akin to awe, succinctly summed up what had just transpired. "Brett Favre," he said, "just took over the game."
The statistics bore him out. Favre ended the contest with 22 pass completions in 29 attempts for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns - with one interception, good for a glossy 112.6 quarterback rating, while distributing the football to no fewer than 9 receivers.
Green, meanwhile, spearheaded Green Bay's ground attack, accounting for 86 of their 106 rushing yards in 21 attempts.
Overall, the Green and Gold emerged with 368 net yards of offense to the 49ers' 290 - after being out-gained, 129 to 76 in that 19-play first half.
The defense, strong against the run, also was a major contributor, holding the 49ers' potent running game to 71 yards, including only 42 by NFL "Comeback Player of the Year" Garrison Hearst.
NOTABLE PACKERS-49ERS CONNECTIONS:
NFL ties: San Francisco head coach Steve Mariucci, who tutored the Packers quarterbacks from 1992-95, is one of nine current NFL head coaches who've previously coached in Green Bay (Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, Dick Jauron, Dick LeBeau, Tom Coughlin, Marty Mornhinweg, Andy Reid and Mike Sherman). Mariucci is a native of nearby Iron Mountain, Mich. Green Bay receivers coach Ray Sherman coached in a similar capacity with the Niners from 1992-93, and also coached San Francisco running backs in 1991. Kicker Ryan Longwell, who played collegiately at Cal, originally signed as an undrafted free agent with the 49ers in April 1997 and spent little more than two summer months with the team, before the Packers claimed him on waivers. Director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie ended his playing career with the Niners in 1992. McKenzie's assistant director, Sean Howard, was a pro scout for the 49ers before coming to Green Bay. Packers O-line coach Larry Beightol and Niners D-coordinator Jim Mora coached together on the Chargers staff in 1989. San Francisco linebackers coach Richard Smith and Packers D-coordinator Ed Donatell were together on the Denver staff from 1995-96.
College teammates: Mike Rumph (49ers) and Bubba Franks (Packers) at Miami (Fla.)...Ahmed Plummer (49ers) and Na'il Diggs (Packers) at Ohio State...Ronnie Heard (49ers) and Nate Wayne (Packers) at Mississippi...Brandon Moore (49ers) and Torrance Marshall (Packers) at Oklahoma...Jeremy Newberry (49ers) and Ryan Longwell (Packers) at Cal...J.J. Stokes (49ers) and Mike Flanagan (Packers) at UCLA...Mark Anelli (49ers) and Bill Ferrario (Packers) at Wisconsin...Dana Stubblefield (49ers) and Gilbert Brown (Packers) at Kansas.
Other connections: Packers LB Hardy Nickerson also played at Cal, and lives in Danville, Calif. ...Green Bay CB/KR Darrien Gordon played at Stanford.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: Quarterback Brett Favre, third a week ago, now ranks second among NFC passers with an 89.6 rating, based upon 285 completions in 452 attempts for 3,171 yards and 24 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions.
Favre also is third among NFC third-down passing leaders with an 88.4 rating, based upon 71 completions in 121 attempts for a conference-leading 1,007 yards and 6 touchdowns, with 4 interceptions. He ranks seventh in fourth-quarter passing leaders, having compiled an 83.4 rating with 54 completions in 93 attempts for 614 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 2 interceptions.
Safety Darren Sharper, making a sixth interception on the final play of Sunday night's game against Minnesota, is now tied with Tampa Bay's Brian Kelly for the NFC lead.
Although inactive Sunday because of a knee injury, Ahman Green remains well up among the leaders in rushing (his 967 yards in 222 attempts rank fourth in the NFC) and in total yards from scrimmage (his 1,338 yards have him in fifth place). Green also is tied for seventh place in NFC non-kicker scoring with 48 points.
Split end Donald Driver is seventh in the NFC in receiving yards with 960 (a 16.0-yard average), tied for ninth with receptions with 60 and fifth in third-down receiving with 20 catches for 384 yards, an imposing 19.2-yard average and one touchdown.
Placekicker Ryan Longwell is tied with Kansas City's Morten Andersen for second in NFL kick-scoring with 111 points, having made all 39 extra points he has attempted and 24 of 29 field goal tries.
Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, with a sack of Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, tied the New York Giants' Michael Strahan and the Philadelphia Eagles' Hugh Douglas for third place in the NFC, with 11.
Punter Josh Bidwell now ranks seventh among NFC punters with a 42.2-yard average for 63 punts.
As a team, the Packers now are tied with Kansas City for second place in the takeaway-giveaway computation with a plus-13 mark, one behind pacesetting Tampa Bay. The Packers have posted a league-leading 38 takeaways (21 interceptions and 17 recoveries of opponent fumbles) compared to 25 giveaways (13 opponent interceptions and 12 lost fumbles).
The Green and Gold continue to rank ninth on offense (11th in rushing and tied for 7th in passing). They moved up a notch on defense, from 14th to 13th, where they rank 29th against the run and 3rd against the pass.
THE FAVRE FILE: Brett Favre made significant Packers and NFL history in orchestrating yet another successful comeback. In the process of passing for 214 yards (22 completions in 32 attempts), Favre surpassed the 3,000-yard mark for the eleventh consecutive year, extending his NFL record.
Dan Marino, who has passed for 3,000 yards in nine seasons, is runner-up to Favre in league annals.
Favre also made his 170th consecutive start, extending his NFL record for quarterbacks, and played in his 172nd straight game, the second-longest such streak in team history behind Forrest Gregg's 187.
In addition, Favre engineered his 26th career game-winning comeback - victories in which he has rallied the Packers from a fourth-quarter deficit or tie - and improved his perfect record at home in cold weather to 34-0 when the temperature at kickoff is 34 degrees or below.
Since Favre launched his 170-game starting streak (on Sept. 27, 1992) only the 49ers (114-56) have a better record than Green Bay (113-57).
THE LONGWELL FILE: Placekicker Ryan Longwell officially joined the Packers' exclusive 700-point "Club" by dint of a 33-yard field goal in the second quarter of Sunday's game. It padded his career point total to 702. He later added another field goal and a pair of conversions to close out the evening with 707.
Longwell, a sixth-year professional, joins the late Don Hutson, the team's all-time leader with 823 points, Chris Jacke (820), and Paul Hornung (760).
The 28-year-old Cal-Berkeley alumnus now has made his last 13 consecutive field goal attempts, leaving him just four short of Chris Jacke's club record 17 straight, and 49 extra points in succession.
Longwell's 13 consecutive field goals tie his personal career mark, a number he has reached twice previously.
THE FISHER FILE: Rookie Tony Fisher, making his first NFL start in replacing the injured Ahman Green, was equal to the task. The hard-hitting Notre Dame alumnus rushed for a career-high 96 yards in 25 attempts (following a 91-yard effort against Chicago a week earlier) and also caught 5 passes for 19 yards to contribute 115 yards of total offense to the cause.
Fisher now has accounted for 333 yards of offense - 266 rushing and 67 receiving. His 266 rushing yards are the most by a Packers rookie in 15 years, since Brent Fullwood registered 274 in 1987. Also a standout special teams performer, he has registered 12 tackles as a kamikaze, 10 of them unassisted.