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Packers-Falcons Preview


Literally washed out of their preseason opener against Kansas City (although it goes into the records as a 9-0 victory for the red-clad Chiefs), the Green Bay Packers next make a second bid for their first non-league success against the imposing Falcons in Atlanta's Georgia Dome Saturday night (Aug. 9).

With a crowd of 50,000 to 55,000 anticipated, kickoff for the contest is set for 7 o'clock, CDT (Wisconsin time).

For the Packers, meanwhile, lightning now has struck twice in their last three Hall of Fame game appearances at Canton, Ohio's compact Fawcett Stadium.

This time around, Monday night's game with the Chiefs was initially delayed with 5:49 remaining in the third quarter when lightning flashed across the Canton sky, accompanied by rumbling thunder and a downpour.

Play was not to resume. With water standing in large puddles across the stadium turf, and rain still pelting down - mutually assuring treacherous footing for the players and continuing risk for the fans - Commissioner Paul Tagliabue officially called the contest.

The experience was inevitably and eerily reminiscent of the Packers' 1980 appearance in the HOF game (Aug. 2). On that occasion, despite intermittent lightning, thunder and rain, their game with the San Diego Chargers was not called by then Commissioner Pete Rozelle until there was only 5:29 remaining the in the fourth quarter - at a time when the weather appeared to be moderating.

In moving on to Atlanta this weekend, the Packers obviously are assured of better "weather" but, competitively speaking, it's not likely to get any easier in the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons will be coming off a 9-6-1 record and their first postseason victory since their 1998 Super Bowl year - a 27-7 Wild Card Playoff win at the Packers' expense last January.

For the Green and Gold, Saturday night's matchup, will be the first preseason appearance ever in Atlanta. They have had five previous non-league meetings with the Falcons but the first was in Canton, Ohio, in 1969's HOF game and the latter four in Wisconsin - the most recent in 1990.

THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: The Packers' new television broadcast team will make its debut along an expanded, 8-station state network in Saturday night's game against the Falcons, with Kevin Harlan calling the play-by-play, former Packers lineman Bill Maas handling the analysis and Jessie Garcia reporting from the sideline.

WFRV-TV's Larry McCarren, the analyst for the Packers Radio Network, also will join the telecasts for pre-game, halftime and postgame segments.

With the aid of a CBS Network technical crew, Green Bay's WFRV-TV and Milwaukee's WTMJ-TV will originate the telecast, which also will be carried by WKOW-ABC, Madison, Wis.; WAOW/ABC, Wausau/Rhinelander, Wis.; WXOW/ABC, La Crosse, Wis.: WQOW/ABC, Eau Claire, Wis.; WYOW/ABC, Eagle River, Wis.; and WJMN/CBS, Marquette, Mich.

Saturday night's game also will be aired along the 62-station Packers Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee handling the play-by-play and McCarren providing the analysis and commentary.

THE ROSTER REPORT: Wesley Walls, signed over the weekend as a free agent, will formally join the Packers on the practice field Wednesday. One of the most productive tight ends in NFL history, the 15-year professional has been assigned jersey number 82. A veteran of 182 games, with 115 starts, he has caught 430 passes for 5,069 yards and 53 touchdowns.

THE SERIES: For a series which began with the Packers cruising to a 56-3 victory over the then-expansion Falcons in their first meeting in 1966, it has evolved into a closely contested rivalry. After 21 regular-season clashes, the Packers hold a modest one-game advantage, having won 11 of them.

Saturday night's combatants also are dead-even in postseason play, each having won one of their two playoff encounters.

Of late, the Packers' relationship with the Falcons has been punctuated by a series of particularly memorable meetings. The pattern was launched in 1994, when Atlanta provided the opposition as the Packers closed out a 62-season stay in Milwaukee (Dec. 18).

The Green and Gold bid farewell to Wisconsin's largest city in dramatic fashion on that occasion, quarterback Brett Favre's lunging, 9-yard scramble into the right corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown on the game's final play bringing nearly 55,000 fans to their feet in the closing seconds to celebrate the 21-17 victory.

A scant year later, the Packers and Falcons crossed paths in the postseason for the first time--on Dec. 31, 1995, in Lambeau Field. With Edgar Bennett rushing for a franchise playoff record 108 yards, the NFC Central Division champion Green and Gold pulled out a 37-20 victory with the aid of a 76-yard scoring punt return by rookie Antonio Freeman, who thus became the first player in Packers history to return a kick for a postseason touchdown.

It was to be six years before the Packers and Falcons met again. Atlanta, again invading "Lambeau," proceeded to lead all the way in a tight struggle, posting a 23-20 victory with the support of a 352-yard passing performance by quarterback Chris Chandler, the Falcons' success ending a nine-game home winning streak for the Packers.

Their next encounter, in last season's regular season opener (Sept. 8), was even more stimulating - in large part because of a dual display of quarterback wizardry by the Packers' Brett Favre and the Falcons' Michael Vick that had a capacity Lambeau Field agog from start to finish.

Favre guided the Green and Gold to four touchdowns and three field goals in escorting the home forces to a 37-34 sudden death overtime victory in the highest-scoring opener they had been a part of since 1983, a year in which they debuted with a 41-38 overtime victory over the then-Houston Oilers.

On the other side of the field, Atlanta's Michael Vick - also led the Falcons to four touchdowns - and a pair of field goals.

Most recently, the Packers saw considerably more of the gifted Vick in their subsequent Wild Card Playoff (Jan. 4, 2003) than they cared to see. The Falcons swept to a 24-0 halftime lead en route to a 27-7 victory against a Packers team minus Pro Bowl running back Ahman Green and starting wide receivers Donald Driver and Terry Glenn, sidelined by injuries.

Vick personally accounted for 191 yards of Atlanta offense, completing 13 of 25 passes for 117 yards and adding 64 rushing yards in 10 attempts.

It was the first home playoff loss ever for the Packers, who were the NFLs' only 8-0 home team in 2002 and had tied for the league's best record (12-4).

THE HEAD COACHES: A continuing success "story," Mike Sherman has recorded more victories (33) in his first three seasons than any other head coach in the Packers' 84-year history has acquired in a like and beginning span - including such accomplished predecessors as team founder Earl "Curly" Lambeau, Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.

In his highly productive three-year tenure (2000-2002), Sherman has entrenched himself in what has become a greatly expanded role (he added executive vice president and general manager titles to his resume in 2001 after just one season 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 consecutive playoff appearance and earning Staples 'Coach of the Year' honors for the '02 season in the process.

Assuming the additional duties without missing the proverbial beat, Sherman has escorted the Packers to back-to-back 12-4 records in 2001 and 2002 - the NFL's best won-lost mark over the two-year span. Only four teams in the club's 82-year league history have exceeded those 12-win performances.

In the overall process, the 48-year-old New Englander has rivaled the regular-season accomplishments of the fabled Lombardi over a comparable span, compiling a 33-15-0 record in his first three seasons (16-game campaigns) compared to Lombardi's 26-12-0 over a similar stretch (two 12-game seasons and one 14-game campaign) while he served as Green Bay's head coach and general manager (1959-60-61).

In addition, Sherman equaled another Lombardi accomplishment by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season (2001) at the controls.

Beyond such achievements, Sherman also has made Lambeau Field a "hostile" venue for NFL rivals to visit. Since he took residence at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in 2000, the Green and Gold are a remarkable 21-3 in "Lambeau" under his direction - the best regular-season record during that span, and a record that includes the NFL's only perfect home record (8-0) in 2002.

Sherman, the first man in a half-century to take on his tri-cornered role (since Lambeau functioned as vice president, general manager and head coach in 1949), 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.

The latter 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 Seattle staff in 1999.

Now in his 26th year in the coaching profession, the scholarly Central Connecticut State University alumnus began his coaching career at Stamford, Conn., High School in 1978. He subsequently 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.

The Falcons' Dan Reeves, in his 23rd year as an NFL head coach, is the league's winningest active coach with 198 career victories.

Now in his seventh season as Atlanta's head coach, he guided the Falcons to a 9-6-1 record and a berth in the NFC playoff field as a Wild Card participant in 2002. The Falcons finished the season with a team-record 23 rushing touchdowns and a franchise-best eight games with 30 or more points. In the postseason, his Falcons became the first team ever to defeat the Packers at Lambeau Field (27-7).

Reeves earlier led the Falcons to their first-ever Super Bowl appearance in 1998 in only his second season in Atlanta since taking over on Jan. 20, 1997. Reeves escorted Atlanta to the NFC West title with a 14-2 record and a franchise record 442 points.

The former South Carolina quarterback had been the head coach of the New York Giants from 1993-96. Prior to that, he compiled a 117-79-1 record as head coach of the Denver Broncos from 1981-1992.

Along the way, Reeves has earned NFL coach of the year honors in 1984, 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1998. He led the Broncos three Super Bowl berths, four AFC Championship games and five AFC Western Division titles.

Overall, Reeves has participated in 48 playoff games and nine Super Bowls as an NFL player, assistant coach and head coach. He also was the only NFL coach in the 1980s to take his team to back-to-back Super Bowls. His career record is 198-164-2.

FAVRE AND THE FALCONS: Oddly enough, considering he has been in a Green Bay uniform for 12 years - since being acquired from Atlanta for a first-round draft choice early in 1992, Brett Favre Saturday night will be playing against the Falcons in a preseason game for the first time since he left the Georgia metropolis via the trade route (Feb. 11, 1992).

He has, however, played a total of six games against his former team in regular and postseason action, and has compiled a 3-3 record in that process as the Packers' starting quarterback.

Favre was making only his second NFL start when he faced the Falcons for the first time on Oct. 4, 1992, in Atlanta's then-new Georgia Dome, and it was not a happy "homecoming" for No 4.

Two years later, Favre was able to square accounts, leading the Packers to a 21-17 victory at County Stadium as the Green and Gold made their final appearance in Milwaukee (Dec. 18, 1994).

He followed that success with another in their Packers' Wild Card Playoff against the Falcons, unfurling three touchdown passes in leading Green Bay past Atlanta, 35-20, in Lambeau Field.

The Falcons had the better of it the next time around, but they had to wait six years for the opportunity, which came in a 2001 visit to Titletown, Atlanta's 23-20 win dealing the Packers their only home defeat of the season.

Favre subsequently gained a 3-2 edge on his former franchise in last year's season opener (Sept. 8), maneuvering the Packers to a 37-34 victory in overtime.

The Falcons then pulled even with Favre in last January's playoff by way of their 27-7 Wild Card playoff success.

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