Committed to shaking off back-to-back losses on the road, the Green Bay Packers (8-3) gratefully return to the comfortable confines of Lambeau Field Sunday (Dec. 1) for the annual rematch with their immemorial rivals, the Chicago Bears (3-8).
Kickoff for the contest, a customary season-ticket sellout (66,110) is set for 12 noon, CST (Wisconsin time).
It will be the 164th regular-season collision between the combatants, who have been jousting ever since Warren Harding was in the White House (1921-23).
After seeing two chances slip away, via 31-21 and 21-7 misadventures with the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively, the Packers will have another opportunity this weekend to clinch their first division championship since 1997. This time around, the matter is entirely in their hands. If they win (or tie), they automatically own the NFC North Division title.
And, of course, thus will have won it in front of their doting loyalists.
Accomplishing the task is likely to be a substantial challenge, however, since they will be encountering a Bears team energized by a 20-17 overtime victory over Detroit, a success that ended an 8-game losing streak for the Monsters of the Midway.
For the Packers, it will be the first of three December appearances in Lambeau Field , where they have been uncommonly successful during the final month of the year over the past decade, having mounted a 31-10 record, the best in the NFL for those last 10 years.
In addition to the Bears, the December at hand will find the Green and Gold hosting the Minnesota Vikings in a Sunday night matchup on ESPN Dec. 8 and the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Dec. 22.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Dick Stockton will call the play-by-play for the Fox Sports Network telecast of Sunday's game and former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston will provide the analysis. Bob Stenner is the producer and Sandy Grossman directs.
The game also will be aired over the Packer Radio Network (Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren) and the broadcast also will be available on the internet via www.packers.com.
THE SERIES: The Packers' longtime "relationship" with the Chicago Bears is unique among National Football League rivalries - in large part because it is the granddaddy of them all from the standpoint of sheer frequency alone.
They have been having at it on assorted gridirons since 1921, a year when the NFL was just into its second year of existence and was then known as the American Professional Football Association. It was not to become the NFL until 1922.
The principals, under the leadership of their respective team founders - the Packers' Curly Lambeau and the Bears' George Halas - were not overly congenial on any field right from the outset - in part because of their geographic proximity and the fact that they played each other two or three times each season. Every one of their imbroglios thus became a legitimate "happening."
The Packers and the Monsters of the Midway, as the Bears have long since come to be known, are the only two teams in league annals to have met as many as 160 times.
Additionally, the rivalry's intensity is well-documented - the scoring differential, after these eight decades and the contesting of 163 games - is a remarkably scant 1 point per game. There is similarly impressive evidence of the animus between these primordials in the fact that 70 of the 163 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Surprisingly enough, under the highly competitive circumstances, the series has yielded only one overtime game. That historic scenario developed in the 1980 season inaugural in Lambeau Field, a contest which saw the Packers prevail via one of the most bizarre plays in the antagonists' long and colorful history.
With the score tied at 6-6 in overtime, Bears defensive tackle Alan Page barged through to block a Chester Marcol field goal attempt. Providentially, from the Packers' perspective, the ball bounced back to Marcol, who scooped it up and dashed 24 yards down Lambeau Field's west sideline for the deciding score in a 12-6 Green Bay victory.
The series has been interrupted twice since its launch - the first time in 1922, when the teams did not meet, and more recently in 1982 when the annual home-and-home series was expunged by a 57-day player strike.
In addition to their 163 regular-season collisions, the age-old enemies have been involved in one postseason showdown. Appropriately enough, it was the first divisional playoff in NFL history - a game played at Chicago's Wrigley Field in 1941 after the Packers and Bears had tied for Western Division honors with identical 10-1 records. The Bears, boasting one of the great teams in league annals, won the playoff, 33-14.
Despite the legendary intensity inherent in the series, both teams have enjoyed periods of dominance along the way. The Packers, for pertinent example, have held the upper hand of late, having won 15 of the last 17 meetings - including a 34-21 decision in the rivals' first '02 encounter in a Monday night matchup at Champaign, Ill., Oct. 7 - and the last four in a row.
The Packers, thus the closest to parity in the overall series record as they have been in some time, now have won 74 games, the Bears 83 and there have been 6 ties.
THE HEAD COACHES: Mike Sherman, a thoroughgoing model of preparedness and consistency, has establish high standards of success in a little over two-and-a-half years as the 13th head coach in the Packers' distinguished history.
Since taking over at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in January of 2000, he has repeatedly approximated and/or paralleled the won-lost accomplishments of the legendary Vince Lombardi's 1959-62 pace, having forged a 29-14 record in his first 43 regular season games, compared to the latter's 31-12 mark at the same stage of his Green Bay career.
What is equally impressive, from the overall perspective, is that Sherman has become only the fourth of the 13 head coaches in the team's 82-year history to mount a winning career record. In so doing, he joins an ultra-exclusive fraternity, whose membership includes only team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
En route, the highly purposeful New Englander also has matched another major Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season as head coach. Moreover, he also has gone up on him by escorting the Packers to victory in his first postseason game. The latter is an accomplishment that eluded Lombardi, who lost his initial playoff game as Green Bay's field leader.
Just a year earlier, when a head coach for the first time at any level, Sherman debuted in 2000 by leading the Green and Gold to a 9-7 record, a season climaxed by a sweep of the Packers' four NFC Central Division rivals (Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and Tampa Bay), a singular achievement.
Then, despite assuming the additional and challenging responsibilities of executive vice president and general manager following Ron Wolf's unexpected retirement, he next maneuvered the Packers to an imposing 12-4 record, a single-season victory total previously surpassed by only three teams in club history.
Sherman then embellished that 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 (45-17).
The first man in a half-century to assume his tri-cornered role - since Lambeau last functioned in those capacities 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 staff that led the Packers into SB XXXII against the Denver Broncos at San Diego.
It was to be the first of three consecutive years in the playoffs for the 47-year-old 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.
Now in his 25th year in the coaching profession, Sherman began his coaching career at Stamford, Conn., High School. He went on to coach in the college ranks for 16 yeas - including a year as offensive coordinator at Holy Cross and terms as offensive line coach at such highly regarded programs as Texas A&M and UCLA.
Dick Jauron, now in his fourth year in the Windy City, is the eleventh head coach in the Bears' long history. He highlighted his tenure by leading the Bears to the greatest single-season turnabout in team history in 2001, escorting the Monsters of the Midway to a 13-3 record The Bears had gone 5-and-11 in 2000.
In so doing, the former Packers aide (he served as Green Bay's defensive backfield coach from 1986-94) directed Chicago to its first division title since 1990 and coached the team in its first playoff game since 1994.
Jauron earlier made a hit with Bears loyalists by become the first coach in team history to defeat the Packers at Lambeau Field in each of his first two trips.
Prior to taking over the Bears, Jauron was the inaugural defensive coordinator at Jacksonville when the Jaguars entered the NFL in 1995. While there, he was instrumental in the early success of the Jaguars, helping them gain three playoff berths in the franchise's first four seasons and a run to the 1996 AFC Championship Game.
The 51-year-old Jauron, a running back at Yale as a collegian (he held the school's career rushing record for 27 years) was selected by Detroit in the fourth round of the 1973 draft and played eight years as a defensive back in the NFL with the Lions (1973-77) and Cincinnati Bengals (1978-80), earning a trip to the 1975 Pro Bowl.
THE LAST TIME: With quarterback Brett Favre staging one of his most memorable and productive performances, the Packers scored early and often en route to a 34-21 triumph over the Bears at the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium the night of Oct. 7 in their first meeting of the season.
In classic form, Favre threw for a season-high 359 yards, including career-best yardage in both the first quarter (180) and the first half (287, subsequently surpassed) while capturing NFC "Offensive Player of the Week" honors.
In launching his heroics, he connected with split end Donald Driver on an 85-yard touchdown strike - tied for the longest play from scrimmage in the NFL this year through the first 10 weeks of the season - to open the scoring.
It was among three touchdown passes Favre posted during the explosive evening - all in the first half - without being intercepted. The 33-year-old field general thus forged a season-best 133.3 passer rating while extending his streak of consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass against Chicago to 21.
In addition to Driver, Favre's other TD targets included tight end Tyrone Davis, recipient of a 19-yard scoring throw in the first quarter and a 5-yard TD strike to tight end Bubba Franks, capping an 8-play, 74-yard march. With Longwell's third conversion, the Packers went up, 21-7.
The Bears, however, shortly capitalized on a Green Bay turnover, Chicago's Mike Brown picking up a Driver fumble at the Packers' 39-yard line and racing all the way to the 4. The Bears were in the end zone in three plays, quarterback Jim Miller passing one yard to tight end John Davis for the score. Paul Edinger converted and the score abruptly was a less comfortable, 21-14, Packers.
Favre, however, had one more drive in him, before halftime, putting together a 32-yard effort to set up a 49-yard Ryan Longwell field goal as the first half ended with Green Bay out front, 24-14.
A block of a Longwell field goal attempt foiled the Packers' first scoring opportunity of the second half but the Green and Gold shortly had another one - and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila made the most of it in spectacular fashion. A Miller pass shot into the air as he was hit by DE Joe Johnson, Gbaja-Biamila gathered in the football and, before the Bears' offense could focus on what had just transpired, cantered 72 yards to a touchdown, untouched. Longwell's conversion made it 31-14.
Longwell later missed a 36-yard field goal, set up by a 49-yard Favre strike to Terry Glenn, but the Packers shortly were back at the Chicago 7-yard line and this time, Longwell connected from 35 yards to close out Green Bay's scoring for the evening.
The Bears also still had something left. They forged a 9-play, 62-yard drive culminated by a 21-yard Miller scoring pass to Davis to make the final reading a little more palatable from their perspective.
Favre closed out the evening with 22 completions in 33 attempts for 359 yards and 3 touchdowns, with 8 of his passes going to Glenn, who emerged with 154 yards, a team single-game high for the season, and four other throws to the fast-rising Driver, who ended his night with 120 yards - his first 100-yard receiving game.
NOTABLE PACKERS-BUCCANEERS CONNECTIONS:
NFL ties: Dick Jauron coached the Packers' defensive backs under three head coaches (Forrest Gregg, Lindy Infante and Mike Holmgren); Jauron is one of nine current NFL head coaches who've previously coached in Green Bay (more than any other franchise)...Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache joined Jauron on the Packers' staff from 1988-93...Packers vice president of football operations Mark Hatley, the Bears' top personnel man from 1997-spring 2001, drafted consecutive Associated Press Rookies of the Year - Brian Urlacher (2000) and Anthony Thomas (2001)...Packers defensive end Keith McKenzie played the first part of 2002 in Chicago, before re-signing with the Packers last week...Bears defensive tackle Keith Traylor (1993) played in Green Bay...Packers fullback Tony Carter signed with the Bears as a undrafted free agent in 1994 and started most of their games from 1995-97...Green Bay coaches Tom Rossley (1997-98) and Bob Slowik (1993-98) served previously as Bears assistants...Bears quarterback Henry Burris spent the 2001 season in Green Bay...Director of player development Edgar Bennett spent his final seasons as a player, 1998-99, in a Chicago uniform...Packers long snapper Rob Davis held a similar capacity for the Bears in 1996...Bob Wylie, Bears offensive line coach, served on the N.Y. Jets staff with current Packers coaches Ed Donatell and Larry Beightol from 1990-91...Phillip Daniels and Ahman Green were Seahawks teammates from 1998-99...Adrian White, uncle of Bears WR Dez White, played for the Packers in 1992.
College teammates: Mike Gandy and Bobbie Howard (Bears) and Tony Fisher (Packers) at Notre Dame...Mike Brown (Bears) and Steve Warren (Packers) at Nebraska...Christian Peter (Bears) and Ahman Green and Tyrone Williams (Packers), also at Nebraska...Larry Whigham (Bears) and Doug Pederson (Packers) at Northeast Louisiana...Joe Tafoya (Bears) and Kevin Barry (Packers) at Arizona.
Other connections: Center Frank Winters played at Western Illinois, while Packers assistants Jeff Jagodzinski (Northern Illinois), Frank Novak (Western Illinois) and Pat Ruel (Northern Illinois) coached at nearby schools...Safety Matt Bowen, an all-state quarterback at Glen Ellyn (Ill.) High School, makes his off-season home in Chicago...Assistant trainer Bryan Engel's mother was Bowen's fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher in Glen Ellyn...Engel is from Hanover Park, Ill. and graduated from Hoffman Estates (Ill.) High School...Bears receiver Ahmad Merritt played at Wisconsin...Packers defensive line coach Jethro Franklin was Bears DE Bryan Robinson's position coach at Fresno State...Both Mike Sherman and Dick Jauron attended high school and college in the New England area...In 1985, Sherman replaced Wylie as offensive line coach at Holy Cross...Both tight ends coaches, Jagodzinski and the Bears' Pat Flaherty, were on the Boston College staff in 1992.
THE INJURY REPORT: Offensive tackle Chad Clifton suffered what GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman described as "a severely sprained right hip" - a possibly "season-ending" injury in the third quarter of Sunday's game and was taken to a Tampa hospital, where he spent the night.
Nose tackle Gilbert Brown also left the game in the third quarter with a left ankle sprain and did not return to action. Sherman said Brown's injury "may be more related to an Achilles' than the actual ankle - and that's obviously a concern. He probably will not practice Wednesday or Thursday...we'll get him back out, hopefully, on Friday."
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: Running back Ahman Green, closing in on a third consecutive 1,000-yard season, continues to rank third in National Football Conference rushing, according to official NFL statistics, with 889 yards in 210 attempts, a 4.2-yard average, and 6 touchdowns.
Green also retained his hold on fourth place in total yards from scrimmage with 1,215, including 326 yards receiving and stands 16th among NFC receivers with 44 catches.
Additionally, Green ranks third in the production of first downs with 53 (39 rushing and 14 receiving).
Quarterback Brett Favre is tied for third place among NFC passers with a 90.4 rating, based upon 239 completions in 378 attempts for 2,736 yards and 20 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.
Favre also ranks eighth in the NFC in third-down passing with a 78.7 rating, based upon 57 completions in 102 attempts for 815 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 4 interceptions.
Split end Donald Driver is fourth in receiving yards in the NFC with 870 and a conference-leading 16.4-yard average (among receivers with at least 20 receptions) and is tied with the New York Giants' Tiki Barber for 10th place in receptions with 53.
Placekicker Ryan Longwell is now third in NFC scoring with 91 points, having made all 34 extra points he has attempted and 19 of 24 field goal attempts.
Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who harvested his 10th sack of the season Sunday, is tied with the Giants' Michael Strahan for third place in the conference. Tampa Bay's Simeon Rice leads with 11.5, followed by Carolina rookie Julian Peppers with 11.0.
Safety Darren Sharper, the conference interception leader a week ago, is now second with 5, behind the Buccaneers' Brian Kelly, who has 6.
Punter Josh Bidwell ranks eighth with a 42.5-yard average (57 punts for 2,418 yards).
As a team, the Packers are second in the takeaway-giveaway computation with a plus-12 (33 takeaways, including 19 interceptions and 14 recoveries of opponent fumbles) compared to 21 giveaways (11 opponent interceptions and 10 lost fumbles).
Eighth offensively a week ago, they are now 10th (12th in rushing and 7th in passing) and now are tied for 14th on defense (29th against the run and fifth against the pass) after being 17th last week.