The Green Bay Packers (4-5), having permitted a glittering opportunity to elude them, next face the challenge of furthering themselves in the NFC North Division race on the road - in a matchup against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-5) next Sunday (Nov. 16).
Kickoff for the inter-divisional contest in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, a sellout (65,657) is set for 3:15, CST (Wisconsin time).
The stage had been opportunely set for the runner-up Packers to trim the pacesetting Minnesota's lead to a mere one game over them in the NFC North race when the Vikings lost their third in a row a day earlier.
But, after allowing the Philadelphia Eagles to leave Lambeau Field with a last-minute, 17-14 victory on ABC's "Monday Night Football," they find themselves two games to the rear of the Vikings (6-3) in the division.
They also are aware the Buccaneers are not likely to be overly hospitable, since the Floridians - like the Packers - are faced with diminishing options to become a postseason qualifier, it being that they trail their NFC South Division leaders, the Carolina Panthers, by three games.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Joe Buck will voice the play-by-play for Sunday's Fox Sports Network telecast, with Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman providing the analysis and Pam Oliver reporting from the sideline. Richie Zyontz is the producer and Artie Kempner directs.
The game also will be aired over the 62-station Packers Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee calling the play-by-play and Larry McCarren offering the analysis and commentary. The radio broadcast also will be available on www.packers.com for NFL field Pass subscribers.
Additionally, the game will be broadcast nationally by Sports USA Radio. Larry Kahn will call the play-by-play, Gino Torretta will provide the analysis and Troy West will report from the sideline.
THE SERIES: There was a time when the Packers had their way with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rather regularly. But that was a decade before the Bucs made off with a world championship last January in a 48-21 runaway over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
During one earlier span, the series was one-sided to a point where Green Bay had won 12 of 14 games over a seven-year period (1990-97). "That was then," however. More recently, the Buccaneers have won 5 of the last 9 meetings, dating back to the beginning of the 1998 season.
Of late, the relationship also has changed - they no longer share the same division. With the NFL's latest realignment, in 2002, the Buccaneers moved into the new NFC South Division while the Packers stayed with the remainder of the former NFC Central Division, re-named the NFC North, in company with the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings.
Although teams in opposing divisions are not likely to face each other annually under the new scheduling format, Sunday's principals, however, find themselves meeting for the second year in a row under the new arrangement - and in Tampa for the second year in a row.
The upcoming matchup will be the 48th in the series, launched in 1977 when the Packers prevailed, 13-0, at the former Tampa Stadium, a sombrero-shaped structure which was razed following the 1998 completion of its successor, Raymond James Stadium.
Green Bay holds a 28-18 advantage overall. There also has been one tie, a 14-14 sudden death overtime standoff played in Tampa on Oct. 12, 1980.
The series has been punctuated by three other overtime games, the first of them yielding a 12-9 Packers victory at Tampa Dec. 12, 1983. Achieved by four field goals off the foot of veteran placekicker Jan Stenerud, it became Bart Starr's final victory in his nine-year career as Green Bay's head coach.
The Buccaneers have won the other two OT contests, posting a 30-27 victory in the rivals' opening day encounter in 1984, and a 13-10 decision in 1995 (Dec. 10), the latter ending a four-game Packers winning streak and depriving them of gaining home field advantage for the playoffs.
THE COACHES: Meticulously prepared and invariably consistent, Mike Sherman has presided over more victories (33) in his first three seasons (33) than any other head coach in Packers history - more than team founder Curly Lambeau (14), more than Vince Lombardi (26) and more than Mike Holmgren (27).
In so doing, Sherman also entrenched himself in what has become a substantially expanded role (he attached the titles of executive vice president and general manager to his résumé after just one year as head coach), leading Green Bay 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.
Shouldering 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 37-20 overall record going into Sunday's showdown in Raymond James Stadium, the 48-year-old Northborough, Mass., native has rivaled the accomplishments of the storied Lombardi over a comparable span, compiling a 33-15-0 mark in his first three seasons (16-game campaigns) as opposed to Lombardi's 26-12-0 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 equaled another Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season (2001) at the controls.
Along the way, Sherman has made Lambeau Field a somewhat hostile place for NFL rivals to visit. Since moving in at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in 2000, the Packers have forged an imposing 23-6 record in "Lambeau" under his leadership - the best regular season record in the NFL during that span, including the league's only perfect home record (8-0) in 2002.
The first man in a half-century to take on 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 Super Bowl XXXII 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 at Seattle in 1999.
Sherman, now in his 26th year in his profession, launched his coaching career at Stamford, Conn., High School in 1978. He 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 respected programs as Texas A&M and UCLA.
Intense, unidirected Jon Gruden, who prepped in Green Bay for his subsequent rise to head-coaching status in the NFL, escorted Tampa Bay to its first Super Bowl championship in his first season as the Bucs' head coach in 2002, thus becoming the youngest head coach (39) in NFL history to win a Super Bowl.
Gruden, the youngest head coach in the NFL, was named the seventh head coach in Buccaneers history on Feb. 18, 2002, signing a five-year contract.
Prior to joining the Buccaneers, Gruden guided the Oakland Raiders to division titles in each of his final two seasons as head coach, steering the Raiders to a 40-28 record in four seasons (1998-2001) with the club, including postseason appearances in 2000 and 2001. Under Gruden, the Raiders advance to the AFC title game in 2000 and lost in 2001 in a divisional playoff to eventual Super Bowl champion New England.
Along the way, Gruden's offenses have finished among the league's Top 10 in three of the last four seasons, including fifth in 1999.
Before taking over in Oakland, Gruden spent three seasons (1995-97) as offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles and three years as wide receivers coach for the Packers (1992-94). Earlier, he worked as offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers in 1990. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee (1986-87), passing game coordinator at Southeast Missouri State in 1988, wide receivers coach at the University of Pacific in 1989 and wide receivers coach at the University of Pittsburgh in 1991 before joining the Packers in '92. Born Aug. 17, 1963 in Sandusky, Ohio, he attended South Bend Clay High School in South Bend.
A three-year letterman at quarterback at the University of Dayton as a collegian, Gruden graduated in1985 with a degree in communications. The Flyers forged a 24-7 record during his three varsity years.
THE LAST TIME: To suggest the Packers have had their problems in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium would be something of an understatement. As a matter of painful fact, the Green and Gold will enter Sunday's having yet to win in the Buccaneers' new venue, where they have lost in each of their five appearances to date.
And, to be totally candid, their 2002 visit to RJS was their least successful to date. Despite having the prolific Brett Favre pulling the trigger, the Green Bay offense - for one of the few times within recent memory - had to settle for a mere 7 points in 60 minutes of football.
Possibly the Packers were lulled into a false sense of security by the ease with which they scored their lone touchdown in the early going. A Na'il Diggs interception at the Green Bay 26-yard line triggered the opportunity, Diggs picking off a Rob Johnson pass and returning it 29 yards to the Tampa Bay 45.
Quick to capitalize, Favre lit up the scoreboard 6 plays later with a 4-yard strike to split end Donald Driver in the left corner of the end zone and Ryan Longwell's conversion made it 7-0.
There was no apparent reason to think, at that early stage, that such should be the case, but the Driver TD concluded the Packers' scoring for the day.
And due in large part to a tightfisted Tampa Bay defense, which intercepted Favre four times, there were few subsequent opportunities for the Green and Gold to add to their total.
The best of these came in the third quarter when Favre put together a 9-play, 53-yard drive to the Tampa Bay 20, where TB cornerback Ronde Barber purloined a Favre pass intended for Terry Glenn at the Tampa Bay 15-yard line.
It was the second Buccaneer theft of the third quarter, following cornerback Brian Kelly's interception at the Green Bay 49-yard line, which he returned 31 yards to the Green Bay 18. The Bucs quickly cashed in on the opportunity, quarterback Brad Johnson hitting wide receiver Joe Jurevicius with a 4-yard scoring pass four plays later.
Adding to the Packers' problems, the Bucs went for a 2-point conversion and made it on a toss to Keyshawn Johnson, giving Tampa Bay a 14-7 lead.
With a relatively modest, 7-point deficit at that stage, midway through the fourth quarter, the Packers still held hope of pulling out a victory - until Dexter Jackson intercepted and returned 58 yards down the right sideline to the Green Bay 4 before being run out bounds. The Bucs scored in three plays, Brad Johnson finding tight end Ken Dilger in a corner of the end zone for a 3-yard TD. That closed out the day's scoring and sealed the Packers' fate, 21-7.
Overall, Favre completed 20 of 38 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown, with 4 interceptions - the most he had had in a regular season game since Nov. 1, 1999, against Seattle.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: In the wake of the most productive statistical performance of his career, running back Ahman Green is showing his explosive heels to the rest of the National Football Conference - and most of the NFL.
With a 224-yard effort against the Philadelphia Eagles Monday night, Green:
- Leads the league in total yards from scrimmage, 1,376
- Leads the NFC in rushing with 1,063 yards
- Leads the NFC among non-kickers in scoring with 78 points (13 touchdowns)
- Leads the NFL in the production of first downs with 78 (62 rushing and 16 receiving)
- Owns a perfect (100.0) rating in third-and-one rushing with a 6-for-6 conversion record
Green's 192 rushing yards against the Eagles Monday night also are an NFC single-game high for the season.
Additionally the Packers' leading receiver, he ranks 17th in the NFC with 38 catches.
Quarterback Brett Favre continues to hold second place in the NFC's passer ratings with an 89.6 mark, based upon 183 completions in 274 attempts for 1,832 yards and 17 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions.
Favre also ranks ninth in NFC third-down passing with a 72.6 rating, based on 46 completions in 74 attempts for 452 yards and 6 touchdowns, with 6 interceptions, and 10th in fourth-quarter passing with a 76.0 rating, based upon 45 completions in 71 attempts for 439 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 4 interceptions.
Placekicker Ryan Longwell is tied for sixth place in NFC kicker scoring with 62 points, having made all of his 29 extra point attempts and 11 of 12 field goal tries.
Fellow specialist Josh Bidwell stands seventh among NFC punters with a 41.5-yard average for 35 punts and returner Antonio Chatman ranks 10th in NFC kickoff returns with a 22.3-yard average for 46 runbacks and 11th in punt returns with an 8.5-yard average for 13 returns.
Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is tied for 11th in quarterback sacks with 4.
The Packers, tied for third place in the NFL a week ago, now rank fifth in the league as a whole on offense (a season-high second in rushing and 21st in passing).
They also lead the league on offense inside the 20 with a 75.0 touchdown percentage (28 possessions, 21 TDs).
The Packers also lead the NFC in first down production, averaging 5.99 yards on first-down (1,557 yards via 260 first-down plays).
Defensively, Green Bay ranks 27th (17th against the run and 28th against the pass).