Though most recently confronted by the pitfalls that inevitably lie on the road, the Green Bay Packers (11-3) are staying firmly on course in their continuing pursuit of playoff priority.
And, having maintained their position with a breathtaking 20-14 victory over the 49ers in rain-soaked and wind-swept San Francisco, they now return to Lambeau Field to close out their regular season home schedule against Drew Bledsoe and the Buffalo Bills (7-7) Sunday (Dec. 22).
They will need to be wary of the Bills, who still have mathematical chance of making the AFC playoffs and are possessors of one of the NFL's most potent offenses, a unit that ranks sixth in the league overall, third in passing.
As a result of the Packers' latest success - their third victory in a row - they remain the third seed in the National Football Conference's postseason pecking order. They are tied in record with both Philadelphia and Tampa Bay at 11-3 but the Eagles own the tie-breaker edge on Green Bay for home field advantage because of a better conference record and the Buccaneers because they defeated the Packers in their Nov. 24 meeting (21-7).
The Eagles and Buccaneers also posted their 11th victories Sunday, Philadelphia turning back Washington, 34-21, and Tampa Bay shading Detroit, 23-20.
Green Bay: vs. Buffalo; at New York Jets.
Philadelphia: at Dallas; at New York Giants.
Tampa Bay: vs. Pittsburgh; at Chicago.
Appropriately enough, the Packers' win over San Francisco tied them with the 49ers for the league's best record (104-57) since September 27, 1992, the date Brett Favre made the first of his league-record, 171 consecutive starts at quarterback.
Unbeaten at home to date (7-0), the Packers Sunday will bid to close out the season with their 11th undefeated home record (1924-25, 1929-32, 1944, 1962, 1996-97). Since 1933, when postseason play began determining the league title, the Packers have never fallen short of the league championship game when finishing with a perfect home record.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Kevin Harlan will call the play-by-play for the CBS telecast of Sunday's game and Randy Cross will provide the analysis, with Beasley Reece reporting from the sideline. Bob Mansbach is the producer and Steve Milton directs.
The game also will be aired over the Packer Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee handling the play-by-play and Larry McCarren the analysis. Additionally, the broadcast will be available on the internet via www.packers.com.
JUST FOR THE RECORD: The acquisition of an 11th victory Sunday marks the sixth time in their last eight years that the Packers have won eleven or more games in a season. In chronological order: 1995 (11-5-0); 1996 (13-3-0); 1997 (13-3-0); 1998 (11-5-0); 2001 (12-4-0); 2002, to date, (11-3-0).
The Packers' victory in 3Com Park also extended the Packers recent domination of the San Franciscans. They now have won nine of their last ten meetings, four of which have been playoff contests.
On the subject of road success, the Packers are in position to post consecutive winning road records (5-3 in 2001) for only the second time since the late '60s. Green Bay was 5-3 in both 1996 and 1997 The previous such back-to-back parlay occurred in 1967 (5-2) and 1968 (4-2-1).
SHERMAN IN DECEMBER: It's beginning to look more and more like December is Mike Sherman's favorite month of the year.
And, overall, Sherman is 11-1 in December as Green Bay's head coach, including a "perfect" 7-and-0 mark at home in December.
THE SERIES: The Packers and Bills have been infrequent adversaries over the 37-year history of their series and, based upon the record, that presumably is quite all right with the Green and Gold. They have met eight times along the way and Buffalo has had considerably the better of it, winning six of those contests.
The Bills, in fact, have won four of their last five meetings, including their most recent encounter - at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sept. 10, 2000, Buffalo emerging with a 27-18 victory.
Three years before that, the Packers posted their first victory over the Bills on Green Bay turf, pulling out a 31-21 win in Lambeau Field on Dec. 20, 1997.
The Packers' other win in the series came at Milwaukee in 1982, Green Bay prevailing 33-21, on a muddy, rain-soaked field in County Stadium.
THE HEAD COACHES: Consistent, thorough and committed, Mike Sherman has continued to represent all three qualities at the highest level while establishing lofty standards of success during his three-year tenure as the 13th head coach in Green Bay's storied and colorful history.
Since taking over at 1265 Lombardi Avenue, pro football's most distinguished address, Sherman has consistently approximated and/or paralleled the accomplishments of the fabled Vince Lombardi's 1959-62 pace in the same role, having compiled a 32-14 record in his first 46 regular-season games compared to the latter's 34-12 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 forge a winning record. In so doing, he joins a highly exclusive fraternity, whose membership additionally includes only team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
In so doing, the 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 one 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.
A year earlier, when a head coach for the first time at any level, Sherman debuted in 2000 by leading the Green and Gold 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 rare 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) in a divisional playoff.
The first man in a half-century to shoulder 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 in 1978. He went on to coach in the college ranks for 16 years - including a year as offensive coordinator at Holy Gross and terms as offensive line coach at such highly regarded programs as Texas A&M and UCLA.
Forty-four-year-old Gregg Williams, the 12th head coach in Buffalo's pro football history, is in his second season as field leader of the Bills.
The Missouri native had spent the previous 11 seasons with the Tennessee organization, the last four as the Titans' defensive coordinator. Under his direction in 2000, the Titans' defensive unit led the league in total defense for the first time since joining the NFL.
The 191 points the Titans allowed also were the third-fewest in the NFL since the league adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978. The Tennessee defense also led the league in third-down efficiency (30.8 percent), fourth-down efficiency (8.3 percent) and fewest first downs allowed (215).
In the process, the Titans also established the franchise's single-season records for sacks (55), fewest passing yards allowed (2,424) and fewest offensive touchdowns allowed (17).
Earlier, Williams spent three years (1994-96) coaching Oilers' linebackers after spending the 1993 season as the club's special teams coach. His special teams unit had the top-rated punting game and rated sixth in kickoff return defense. From 1990-92, Williams served as the team's first quality control coordinator.
As a collegian, Williams played football (quarterback) and baseball at Northwest Missouri State (1976-79) while earning a B.S. degree. He began his coaching career in the high school ranks as an assistant coach at his hometown of Excelsior Springs (Mo.) High School from 1980-83. He later served as head coach at Belton (Mo.) High School; from 1984-87. Williams then spent the 1988-89 seasons as a graduate assistant at the University of Houston under former Oilers coach Jack Pardee before entering the pro coaching ranks in 1990.
THE LAST TIME: In the Packers' most recent encounter with the Bills, on Sept. 10, 2000, three Green Bay turnovers keyed a 27-18 loss to Buffalo before 72,722, fans in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Bills quarterback Rob Johnson, now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, completed 18 of 26 passes for 259 yards and 3 touchdowns, with one interception, despite consistent pressure from the Packers' defense, which registered 5 sacks. It was Johnson's 14-yard scoring strike to tight end Jay Riemersma with 11:45 left to play in the game that gave Buffalo an insurmountable, 27-10 lead.
Meanwhile, Packers quarterback Brett Favre also displayed a hot hand, completing his first 14 passes and closing out the afternoon with a 25-for-35, 269-yard, 2-touchdown performance.
After taking possession at the Buffalo 46-yard line in the second quarter, Johnson completed consecutive passes to Eric Moulds and Peerless Price to put Buffalo on the Green Bay 18. With 46 seconds to play in the half, Bills receiver Jeremy McDaniel caught a 6-yard touchdown pass for the game's first points.
Allen Rossum's ensuing 41-yard kickoff return gave Green Bay position at the Buffalo 49. Three plays later, Favre was hit from behind by the Bills' Marcellus Wiley and fumbled into the hands of Buffalo defensive end Phil Hansen, who subsequently ran the ball to the Green Bay 27-yard line with 11 seconds left to play in the half. A Steve Christie field goal left the Packers with a 10-0 halftime deficit.
After the intermission, Riemersma's first of two touchdowns lengthened the Bills' lead to 17-0, but then Favre led the Packers' offense on a seven-play, 80-yard drive, culminating in a 7-yard touchdown reception for wide receiver Antonio Freeman.
Taking advantage of a fumbled punt return by Rossum later in the third period, Christie again connected to give Buffalo a 20-7 lead but was answered by Ryan Longwell's 24-yard field goal, set up by Vonnie Holliday's interception deep in Bills territory.
Down by 17 after Riemersma's second touchdown catch, Favre was able to engineer another 80-yard touchdown drive, with the score coming from Freeman, who had 80 yards receiving on 7 catches - both team highs.
NOTABLE PACKERS-BILLS CONNECTIONS:
NFL ties: Drew Bledsoe and Terry Glenn were Patriots teammates from 1996-2001...Bills safety Billy Jenkins finished the 2002 season in Green Bay...Buffalo head coach Gregg Williams and O-coordinator Kevin Gilbride joined current Packers coaches Larry Beightol (1995) and Frank Novak (1990-94) on past Houston Oilers staffs...Chidi Ahanotu and Hardy Nickerson were Tampa Bay teammates in the 1990s...The Packers drafted offensive lineman Mike Houghton, now with the Bills, in the 2002 draft...Packers defensive line coach Jethro Franklin worked with the Bills in 1994...Pro personnel assistant Marc Lillibridge, a former linebacker, went to Bills training camp in 1996...Buffalo vice president/communications Scott Berchtold was the Packers' assistant PR director from 1985-89.
College teammates: Ahmad Brooks and Mike Williams (Bills) and Marcus Wilkins (Packers) at Texas...Nate Clements and Antoine Winfield (Bills) and Na'il Diggs (Packers) at Ohio State...Phillip Crosby and Dominque Stevenson (Bills) and David Martin (Packers) at Tennessee.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: Placekicker Ryan Longwell, nearing a career single-season high, is the NFL's second-leading scorer with 119 points following an 8-point harvest in Sunday's 20-14 Packers victory over San Francisco.
Longwell, 4 points back of league-leader David Akers of Philadelphia with two games remaining, needs 13 points to surpass his single-season high, 131 points, registered in 2000.
He has made all 41 extra points he has attempted and 26 of 32 field goal tries.
Brett Favre, second in the conference a week ago, now ranks third among the NFC's passers with a 90.3 rating, based upon 310 completions in 485 attempts for 3,372 yards and 25 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions.
Favre also ranks fourth in the NFC in third-down passing with an 88.6 rating, based upon 80 completions in 132 attempts for 1,060 yards and 6 touchdowns, with 4 interceptions, and seventh in fourth-quarter passing with an 83.5 rating, based upon 59 completions in 100 attempts for 655 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 2 interceptions.
Ahman Green continues to hold fourth place among the NFC's leading rushers with 1,057 yards in 246 attempts, a 4.3-yard average, and fifth in the conference in total yards from scrimmage with 1,428, including 298 yards receiving.
Green also ranks sixth in the NFC in the production of first downs with 65, including 47 rushing and 18 receiving, and is tied for seventh in non-kicker scoring with 54 points on 9 touchdowns.
Teammate Donald Driver ranks eighth in the conference in receiving yardage with 1,002 and 10th in receptions with 64.
On the other side of the football, safety Darren Sharper continues to share the league lead in interceptions with 6 and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is tied for fifth overall with 11.0 quarterback sacks.
Punter Josh Bidwell stands 10th in the NFC with a 41.8-yard average for 66 punts.
From the team standpoint, the Packers now rank third in the NFL in the takeaway-giveaway table with a plus-14 reading. They have registered a league-high 39 takeaways (22 interceptions and 17 recoveries of opponent fumbles) compared to 25 giveaways (13 opponent interceptions and 12 lost fumbles).
The Green and Gold rank ninth on offense (11th in rushing and ninth in passing) and are 11th on defense (26th against the run and fourth against the pass).
THE FAVRE FILE: Although weather conditions were hardly conducive to the production of imposing statistical numbers, quarterback Brett Favre managed to scale another significant plateau Sunday.
This time, he threw his 25th touchdown pass of the season, thus marking the seventh time in his 11-year Packers' career that he has thrown 25 or more TD passes in a season.
Favre, closing out the day with an imposing 100.7 passer rating (also made his 171st consecutive start, extending his NFL record for quarterbacks, and played in his 173rd straight game, second-longest streak in team annals behind Forrest Gregg's 187 straight).
Speaking of durability and longevity, Favre is rapidly approaching his 2,000th career drive. He enters Sunday's game against Buffalo having presided over 1,978.
THE GREEN FILE: Running back Ahman Green, rushing for 90 yards, made another visit to the Packers' record book Sunday in surpassing the 1,000-yard mark in rushing for the third consecutive year.
Green thus becomes only the third running back in team history to do so, following Jim Taylor, who had five such seasons in succession (1960-64) and John Brockington (3, 1971-73).
Green, who rushed for 1,175 yards in 2000 and 1,387 last season, has 1,057 to date this season, giving him a career total of 3,619, currently good for eighth place in Packers annals.
Ahman, with three pass receptions against the 49ers, also tied Jim Taylor for 19th place on the Packers' career list with 187 catches.
THE DRIVER FILE: Split end Donald Driver, easily having the best season of his four-year NFL career, lifted his game to a new and lofty statistical level, surpassing 1,000- yards in receiving for the first time.
Driver, with 4 catches for 42 yards against San Francisco, swelled his season total to 1,002, with two games remaining.
THE BARRY FILE: Rookie offensive tackle Kevin Barry, an undrafted free agent from Racine, Wis., and the University of Arizona, is the latest to enter the Packers' spotlight because of the team's ongoing injury "epidemic."
The 6-4, 325-pound Barry suddenly found himself starting the game at right tackle Sunday when veteran Earl Dotson's back locked up, forcing him to sit out.
Following the game, Barry said, "They came to me about an hour before the game and said, 'You're starting at right tackle,' and I said, 'OK.' "
GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman, meanwhile, had high praise for Barry's impromptu performance, asserting, "I thought he did a heck of a good job."