THE GAME: Their seven-game winning streak having come to an abrupt end in Minnesota's resounding Metrodome, the Green Bay Packers (8-2) resume pursuit of the NFC North Division title in a road showdown next Sunday between division leaders - one which will take them to Florida for a matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, also 8-2 and out front in the NFC South Division race.
Kickoff for the contest in Tampa's sold-out Raymond James Stadium (65,657) is set for 3:15, CST (Wisconsin time).
The Buccaneers, under the directed Jon Gruden, pose a major challenge for the Green and Gold. They share the league's best record with the Packers at 8-2 and have won their last three games, including a 23-10 dispatch of the Carolina Panthers over the weekend.
Meanwhile, the Packers' hopes of clinching a division title in the Minneapolis Metrodome were foiled over when they were ambushed by Minnesota's 2-7 Vikings, who stepped out to an early 14-0 lead and eventually emerged from a hectic struggle with a 31-21 victory.
The loss ended Green Bay's longest in-season winning streak since 1963, a season which saw the Green and Gold lose their opener to the Chicago Bears - then win eight games in a row.
The Packers were needing a victory plus a loss by the Lions - who fell to the New York Jets (31-14), to clinch a division title for the first time since 1997.
To settle the issue this weekend, the Green and Gold need a victory plus a Minnesota loss or tie at New England.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Joe Buck will voice the play-by-play for the Fox Sports Network's telecast of Sunday's game. Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman will provide the commentary and analysis and Pam Oliver will report from the field. Richie Zyontz produces and Artie Kempner directs.
The game also will be broadcast over the Packer Radio Network (Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren) and will be available on the internet via www.packers.com.
Nationally, the game will be aired by Sports USA Radio with Larry Kahn handling the play-by-play, Gino Torretta providing the analysis and Troy West reporting from the field.
THE SERIES: The Packers' series with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, once one-sided to a point where Green Bay won 12 of 14 games over a seven-year span (1991-97) has become a considerably more chancy affair of late.
Over the past four years, next Sunday's principals have split their eight meetings, each winning at home in what had been a home-and-home series since 1978 when both were members of the NFC Central Division.
There now, of course, is a different competitive scenario. Under the NFL's new alignment, formed this year when the Houston Texans became the league's 32nd team and the league was divided into eight four-team divisions, the Packers are now in the NFC North Division and the Bucs in the NFC South. As a result, they will meet only once in any given year that the schedule calls for them to meet.
The Buccaneers thus have the home field advantage this time around in a series which began in 1977, the Packers prevailing at the former Tampa Stadium, 13-0. They have met 46 times overall, with Green Bay holding a 28-17-1 advantage.
There also has been one tie, a 14-14, sudden death overtime standoff played in Tampa on Oct.12, 1980.
Additionally, the series has been punctuated by three other overtime games, the first of them yielding a 12-9 Green Bay victory at Tampa Dec. 12, 1983. Achieved by four field goals by 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, gaining a 30-27 victory in the rivals' first encounter of the 1984 season and a 13-10 decision in 1995, the latter ending a four-game Packers winning streak and depriving them of gaining home field advantage for the playoffs.
THE HEAD COACHES: Impeccably prepared and highly consistent in every area, Mike Sherman has established lofty standards of success in just over two-and-a-half seasons as the 13th head coach in Green Bay' storied pro football history.
Since taking over at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in 2000, he has demonstrated his substantial coaching acumen by consistently paralleling the won-lost accomplishments of the legendary Vince Lombardi on a game-by-game basis. At the moment, in fact, he is just one game off Lombardi's pace of 1959-62, having posted a 29-13 record in 42 regular season games compared to the latter's 30-12 mark at the same stage.
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 career record, thus joining a highly exclusive fraternity whose membership includes only team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
In so doing, Sherman also has matched another major Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season as head coach and - beyond that, has gone one up on him by escorting Green Bay to victory in his first postseason opportunity. The latter is an accomplishment that eluded Lombardi.
In 2000, when a head coach for the first time at any level, 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.
Then, despite assuming the additional and formidable responsibilities of executive vice president and general manager following Ron Wolf's retirement, he next guided the Packers to an imposing 12-4 record in 2001, a single-season victory total exceeded by only three teams in club annals.
Sherman then proceed to embellish that significant success by escorting 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 to assume his multiple responsibilities - since Lambeau last functioned in those capacities in 1949 - Sherman brings impressive credentials to his tri-cornered role. 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.
The latter was 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.
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 - 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.
Jon Gruden, a former Packers coaching aide, is in his first year as field leader of the Buccaneers, having taken over on Feb. 18, 2002, as the seventh head coach in Tampa Bay's 25-year NFL history.
The NFL's youngest head coach at 39, Gruden joined the Bucs after guiding the Oakland Raiders to AFC Western Division titles in each of his two final seasons as head coach. He steered the Raiders to 40-28 mark in his four seasons with the club (1998-2001), including postseason appearances in 2000 and 2001.
Under Gruden, the Raiders advanced to the AFC title game in 2000 and lost last season in a divisional playoff game to eventual Super Bowl champion New England.
Gruden's offenses have finished among the league's Top 10 in each of the last three seasons. Prior to his four seasons with Oakland, Gruden spent three years (1995-97) as offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles - after three years as wide receivers coach for the Packers (1992-94). He began his NFL coaching career as an offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers in 1990.
As a collegian, Gruden was a three-year letterman at quarterback at the University of Dayton, graduating in 1985 with a degree in communications. The Flyers posted a 24-7 record during his three varsity seasons. A native of Sandusky, Ohio, he attended South Bend Clay High School in Indiana before matriculating at Dayton.
Gruden launched his coaching career as a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee (1986-87). He subsequently was passing game coach at Southeast Missouri State in 1998, wide receivers coach at the University of Pacific in 1989 and held the same position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1991.
THE LAST TIME(S): Perhaps poetically, the Packers and Buccaneers closed out their home-and-home modus operandi in 2001 with a pair of the most tautly contested struggles in their mutual history.
A late, 39-yard touchdown run from an unlikely source, fullback Mike Alstott, enabled the Bucs to squeeze out a 14-10 victory at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium (Oct. 7) and the Packers squared matters in their Nov. 4 rematch in Lambeau Field, Allen Rossum returning a punt 56 yards for the deciding touchdown with only 3:17 remaining to pull out a 21-20 Green Bay victory.
The latter result was particularly satisfying to the Packers, who had seen Tampa Bay end their seven-game winning streak - the league's longest such skein - in their first '01 meeting.
Alstott, who broke several tackles on his way to the deciding score, had capped the longest scoring drive in Tampa Bay annals, 95 yards. The big running back, who received most of the Bucs' carries in place of an injured Warrick Dunn, had been held in check until his decisive, fourth-quarter run.
Tampa Bay intercepted Brett Favre on each of Green Bay's first two possessions, including the Packers' second play from scrimmage. Then, on the first play of the second period, with Green Bay threatening, the Bucs' Sheldon Quarles picked off Favre and raced 98 yards for the game's first score. It was the longest scoring play in Tampa Bay's history.
Favre, however, kept his focus and, two possession later, hit Bill Schroeder streaking down the Packer sideline for 67 yards and a score-tying touchdown.
The Packers later capitalized on turnovers in the second half. On Tampa Bay's initial second half series, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila sacked quarterback Brad Johnson, forcing a fumble that John Thierry recovered at the Bucs' 22-yard line. Four plays later, Ryan Longwell connected from 35 yards out, providing Green Bay with its first lead of the game, 10-7.
Gbaja-Biamila, for the second time in four games, recorded three sacks. His nine sacks over the season's first four games matched an NFL record, shared by Kevin Greene (1998) and Mark Gastineau (1984).
Favre, meanwhile, completed passes to eight different receivers and threw for 258 yards. He also marched the Packers 78 yards on their last 13-play drive before time ran out.
In the rematch at "Lambeau," Rossum went untouched by all but one defender, Sheldon Quarles, subsequently flagged for grabbing Rossum's face mask.
The defense set up the return, holding the Bucs to three-and-out after a 50-yard Josh Bidwell punt and a 10-yard holding penalty pinned Tampa Bay at its own 12-yard line. On the day, the Packers registered seven quarterback sacks, tying a season high, and Gbaja-Biamila (10) became the first Green Bay player since Reggie White to reach double figures in a season.
Green Bay trailed 17-7 just over five minutes into the second half when Brad Johnson hit Mike Alstott for an 11-yard score.
But five minutes later, Ahman Green 's 63-yard burst cut the lead to 17-14. Green, who rushed for a career-best 169 yards in 24 attempts, recorded his third 2001 run of at least 61 yards.
Tampa Bay capitalized on all three Packers turnovers, cashing them in for 17 points. But the Bucs would have had more if not for Mike Wahle's touchdown-saving "clothesline" tackle on Donnie Abraham's first-half interception, which set up a Martin Gramatica field goal.
In the winning process, Favre improved his record to 10-0 against the Buccaneers at home.
NOTABLE PACKERS-BUCCANEERS CONNECTIONS:
NFL ties: Jon Gruden (offensive assistant 1992, receivers 1993-94) is one of nine current NFL head coaches who coached previously in Green Bay...Packers linebacker Hardy Nickerson went to five pro bowls during his seven seasons in Tampa...Nickerson and Bucs receiver Keenan McCardell were Jacksonville teammates the past two seasons...Tampa Bay receiver Charles Lee, a 2000 Packers draft choice, was released during 2002 training camp...Packers running backs coach Sylvester Croom (1987-90) and offensive line coach Larry Beightol (1987-88) coached those respective positions for the Bucs...Ray Sherman, the Packers' receivers coach, served on the same Vikings staff with current Bucs D-coordinator Monte Kiffin (1992-94)...Kiffin tutored the Packers linebackers in 1983, under Bart Starr...Sherman coached current Tampa quarterback Brad Johnson with the Vikings from 1995-97...Green Bay weight room assistant Vince Workman played for both the Packers (1989-92) and Bucs (1993-94)...Packers scout Alonzo Highsmith (1992-93) also played for the Bucs...Defensive tackle DeVone Claybrooks previously spent time in the Packers organization.
College teammates: Cosey Coleman (Bucs) and Chad Clifton and David Martin (Packers) at Tennessee...Nate Webster (Bucs) and Bubba Franks (Packers) at Miami (Fla.)...Rickey Dudley (Bucs) and Terry Glenn (Packers) at Ohio State.
Other connections: Green Bay cornerback Tyrone Williams was all-state in two sports at Manatee High School in Bradenton, Fla, where he was born...Tampa Bay running back Aaron Stecker, the 1993 Associated Press and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel football player of the year, is an Ashwaubenon (Wis.) High School graduate...Packers linebacker Na'il Diggs and Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson just missed playing together at Los Angeles' Dorsey High School...Tampa Bay defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was at Cal during Nickerson's college career.
THE ROSTER: The Packers have released defensive end Jared Tomich from the 53-man active roster, GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman has announced.
Tomich, a fifth-year professional out of Nebraska, had been re-signed as a free agent Nov. 7 and saw action in last Sunday's game against Minnesota, posting one solo tackle and forcing a fumble.
THE CONFERENCE CALLS: Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden will be available to Wisconsin's sports media via conference call in media workroom H of the Packers' administration building at 10:25 Wednesday morning, to be followed by defensive tackle Warren Sapp at 10:40.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: Quarterback Brett Favre, second a week earlier, now ranks fourth in NFL passer ratings with a 96.9 mark after 10 games. It is based upon 219 completions in 340 attempts for 2,540 yards and 19 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions.
Favre also has moved up from seventh to fourth place in NFC fourth-quarter passing with an 88.5 rating based upon 34 completions in 59 attempts for 383 yards and 2 touchdowns, without an interception. He stands fifth in third-down passing with an 85.7 rating, based upon 53 completions in 92 attempts for 766 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 3 interceptions.
Running back Ahman Green continues to rank third in NFC rushing with 833 yards in 192 attempts, a 4.3-yard average, and 6 touchdowns. He remains fourth in the NFC in total yards from scrimmage with 1,119, including 286 yards receiving, and is sixth in NFC non-kicker scoring with 48 points.
Additionally, Green ranks fifth in the NFC in the production of first downs with 49 (37 rushing and 12 receiving).
Split end Donald Driver, a 100-yard receiver for the second week in a row, vaulted into third place in the NFC in receiving yards with 838 (a 16.8-yard average). He also is in eighth place in receptions with 50 and ranks fourth among conference third-down receiving leaders with 16 for 310 yards, a 19.4-yard average, and 1 touchdown. In addition, Driver is tied for eighth place in conference non-kicker scoring with 36 points.
Placekicker Ryan Longwell, the league's leader a week ago, now ranks third in kicker scoring with 90 points, two behind Philadelphia's David Akers and a point back of the Kansas City Chiefs' Morten Andersen.
Safety Darren Sharper, posting his fifth "pick" of the season, tied Miami's Patrick Surtain for the league lead. Fellow safety Marques Anderson also moved into a tie for second after making his fourth theft of the season Sunday.
Defensive end Gbaja-Biamila, forging his ninth sack of the season, ranks third in the NFL.
As a team, the Packers now rank eighth on offense (13th in rushing and fifth in passing) and 17th on defense (30th against the run and ninth against the pass).