THE GAME: Having primed themselves for a quick getaway by closing out their preseason agenda with a three-game winning streak, the Green Bay Packers have swiftly homed in on their opening assignment of the 2002 National Football League season - against the Atlanta Falcons in Lambeau Field next Sunday (September 8).
Kickoff for the inaugural of the Packers' 82nd NFL season is a customary season ticket sellout for the 43rd consecutive year - with one significant change. "Lambeau," well along in a stunning renovation project, enters the '02 season with a new and expanded capacity (65,290) - up from 60,890 of the recent past.
GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman, coming off a prosperous 12-4 campaign in '02 and beginning his third year as Green Bay's field leader, will be in search of a second straight opening day success, the Packers having defeated the Detroit Lions (28-6) in their 2001 baptismal.
In the wake of a 21-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans in the Packers' preseason finale, Sherman put the 3-and-1 preseason record in practical perspective while acknowledging the ancillary pluses he perceives in approaching the opener.
"Three-and-one doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot, to be honest with you," he said by way of preface. "I don't put a whole lot of stock in three-and-one as a litmus test of what we're going to do this season.
"However, what I do look at is how hard they've worked in the preseason - and the guys have worked hard. We've got a great group of guys in that locker room. I'm very proud of them and we'll continue to work to get better."
The Falcons, meanwhile, went undefeated over their preseason schedule for only the second time in team history, posting a 4-0 mark with successive victories over the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals.
Sunday's principals, who met for the first time in 1966, when the Falcons joined the NFL, will be making mutual history in their rivalry - they will be meeting for the first time in a season opener.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Curt Menefee will call the play-by-play for Sunday's season opener, to be televised on FOX, with Tim Ryan providing the analysis and Drew Smith reporting from the field. Ray Smaltz is the producer and Rich Dewey directs.
The game also will be aired over the Packer Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren launching their fourth season as the network's broadcast team.
Larrivee, former "voice" of the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears, is beginning his 25th season as a play-by-play broadcaster of NFL football.
In addition to the 72-station radio network, the broadcast also will be available on the internet via www.packers.com.
THE SERIES: The Packers have not seen much of the Falcons in recent years - and would have gladly foregone the pleasure last season, when they met for the first time in seven years. It was not a happy experience for the Green and Gold. On that occasion (November 18), the Falcons led all the way en route to a 23-20 victory in Lambeau Field, a development that ended a nine-game home winning streak for the Packers and dropped them into second place in the NFC Central Division.
Also, as a result thereof, the Falcons squared the overall series record, launched in 1966, at 10-10.
Prior to that misadventure, the Packers had substantially better results in their two most recent encounters, both historic and coming in back-to-back years.
The first, on December 18, 1994, saw Green Bay score a breathtaking, last-play victory on a Brett Favre bootleg at County Stadium. Thus forging a successful conclusion to a 62-year stay in Milwaukee, where the Packers had been playing regular season games since 1933.
The second historic matchup occurred in Lambeau Field - on December 31, 1995,when the Packers turned back the Falcons, 37-20, in a Wild Card playoff game en route to a Divisional playoff showdown against the San Francisco 49ers and, subsequently, to the NFC Championship Game at Dallas.
THE OPENING DAY RECORD: The Packers enter Sunday's inaugural 12 games above .500 in their all-time opening day history. They have won 45, lost 33 and tied 3 of 81 previous openers.
Used to success on opening day of late, they have won five of their last six openers, the most recent success a 28-6 triumph over the Detroit Lions in last year's kickoff contest.
Prior to losing their 2000 baptismal to the New York Jets, the Green and Gold previously had forged a four-game winning streak (1996-1999), launching that skein with a 34-3 victory at Tampa in 1996, then following with a 38-24 triumph over the Chicago Bears in 1997, their most recent Super Bowl year. They next turned back the Lions in 1998's kickoff, 38-19, and then came from behind in the final minute to shade the Oakland Raiders, 28-24, in their 1999 opener.
The Falcons are even with the board, lifetime, on opening day with an 18-18-0 record in 36 openers.
A HAPPY HOME: The Packers have had singular success in Lambeau Field over the past six seasons, posting a 41-7 regular-season record at home over that span, including a 7-1 mark in 2001 with a three-game winning streak carrying over from last season into '02.
THE HEAD COACHES: Impressively methodical and impeccably prepared, Michael Francis Sherman Sunday formally begins his third season as Green Bay's head coach - his second as also the team's general manager and executive vice president - entrenched among the elite leaders in the team's storied and colorful history.
The possessor of a 21-11 regular season record, he has equaled Vince Lombardi's won-lost record for his first 32 games as Green Bay's head coach and general manager.
And, en route, he has become only the fourth of the 13 head coaches in team history to compile a winning career record, joining team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
Additionally, the 47-year-old New Englander matched another major Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the playoffs in his second season as head coach - and then went the legendary Lombardi one better by winning his first postseason game.
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, climaxed by a sweep of the Packers' four NFC Central Division rivals, a rare accomplishment.
Next, despite assuming the additional and imposing responsibilities of executive vice president and general manager in the wake of Ron Wolf's retirement, he followed that achievement by guiding the Packers to a 12-4 record in '01, a single-season victory total surpassed by only three teams in club annals.
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 falling to the Super Bowl-bound St. Louis Rams, in a divisional playoff, 45-17.
The first man to undertake his multi-faceted role since Lambeau last functioned in those capacities in 1949, Sherman has brought 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 in SB XXXII against the Denver Broncos in San Diego.
It was to be the first of three consecutive years in the playoffs for the purposeful 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 launched 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 Cross and terms offensive line coach at such highly-regarded programs as UCLA and Texas A&M.
Like Sherman, the Falcons' veteran headmaster, Dan Reeves, is a man of multiple roles. Previously field leader of both the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants, Reeves serves the Falcons as both head coach and executive vice president of football operations.
Reeves, now in his sixth season with the Falcons and his 22nd as an NFL head coach, ranks first among the league's active head coaches with 178 career victories, and eighth overall.
Tied with the late Norm Van Brocklin as the second-winningest head coach in Falcons history (37-43), he led Atlanta to a 14-2 regular-season record and Super Bowl XXXIII in 1998. Following that achievement, he was named NFL "Coach of the Year" for the fifth time in his career.
Earlier, the 58-year-old Reeves directed the Denver Broncos to three Super Bowl appearances during a four-year span in the late 1980s.
The Rome, Ga., native, a second-team All-ACC quarterback at the University of South Carolina as a collegian, Reeves went on to an eight-year, NFL playing career with Dallas, becoming the first Cowboy ever to score 4 touchdowns in a game.
THE SHERMAN STAMP: Mike Sherman, like his GM predecessor, Ron Wolf, puts heavy emphasis on winning at home...on making Lambeau Field an unpleasant place to visit. And, to date, he has been impressively successful.
Heading into Sunday's opener against Atlanta, he has compiled an overall, 20-3 won-lost home record to date. With the 21-20 defeat of Tennessee over the weekend, he is undefeated in "Lambeau" in preseason competition (6-0), 13-3 in regular season play and 1-0 in the postseason, the latter the 25-15 conquest of the San Francisco 49ers in last January's wild card playoff game.
THE ROSTER: The Packers Sunday waived 15 players, including seven veterans, in reaching the NFL's regular-season player limit of 53. Veterans waived included wide receiver Charles Lee, running back Herbert "Whisper" Goodman, linebacker Rob Holmberg, defensive back Keith Thibodeaux, defensive end Jared Tomich, wide receiver Chris Jackson and defensive back Todd Franz.
Eight rookie and first-year players also were released, the list including guard Mike Houghton, the Packers' sixth-round selection in this year's NFL draft; fullback Chris Gall (Indiana); cornerbacks Hurley Tarver (Central Oklahoma), and Erwin Swiney (Nebraska), wide receiver Devin Lewis (Southern University), defensive end John Gilmore (Tennessee State), tight end/fullback Bill Seymour (Michigan) and center Andy Eby (Kansas State).
Goodman was waived injured and Tarver and Gall following injury settlements.
THE LAST TIME: Veteran Chris Chandler threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns as the visiting Falcons stunned the Packers, 23-20, thus handing the Green and Gold their only regular-season home defeat of the 2001 season.
Controlling the momentum from the game's second play, when Ashley Ambrose intercepted Brett Favre's first pass, the Falcons never trailed.
Green Bay's defense proved tightfisted in the first quarter, holding Atlanta to a pair of James Feely field goals - despite the Falcons beginning each of their first three drives in Packers territory. Patrick Kerney set up one of those scores, when he sacked Favre midway through the first quarter, forcing a fumble that Shane Dronett recovered at the Green Bay 26-yard line.
The game's key play came with 12:19 remaining in the fourth quarter. Atlanta, after Chandler committed intentional grounding, faced third-and-12 from its own 20. Safety Chris Akins, playing in place of an injured LeRoy Butler, committed unnecessary roughness, giving the Falcons a first down.
Atlanta continued its march, and extended its lead to 10 points when Chandler hit Brian Finneran on 12-yard touchdown pass.
Butler had broken his left shoulder blade in the second quarter, thus ending his season, a 116-game playing streak and, eventually, his 12-year career.
Favre, meanwhile, made his 150th consecutive start, extending the NFL record at his position. He also lost for only the 12th time in 75 career home starts.
The Packers committed a season-high four turnovers, including Ambrose's second pick, which ended Green Bay's final drive.
THE FAVRE RECORD: Quarterback Brett Favre, historically a formidable performer on opening day, Sunday will be in search of an eighth victory in 10 opening day assignments.
For the record, Favre won his first two "kickoff" starts, 36-6 over the then Los Angeles Rams at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1993, and 16-10 over the Minnesota Vikings in Lambeau Field in 1994 before slipping against the now St. Louis Rams, 17-14, on opening day in 1995.
The freewheeling Mississippian then went on a four-year winning streak, leading the Packers past Tampa Bay, 34-3, in 1996, over the Chicago Bears in 1997, 38-24, the Detroit Lions in 1998, 38-19, and the Oakland Raiders, in 1999, 28-24.
The New York Jets ended Favre's skein in 2000, 20-16, and he rebounded in 2001, escorting the Packers to a 28-6 victory over Detroit.
BRETT'S BEST: Statistically speaking, Brett Favre had his most productive opening day performance in 1999. On that occasion (September 12), he completed 28 of 47 passes for 333 yards - the latter total a career opening-day high, and 4 touchdowns.
From the passer-rating perspective, Favre had his best opening day to date in the Super Bowl year of 1996, when he compiled a lofty 141.5 reading, based on 20 completions in 27 attempts for 247 yards and 4 touchdowns - without an interception - in a 34-3 victory over the Buccaneers at Tampa.
THE FAVRE STREAK(S): The Packers' 32-year-old field general today is making his 158th consecutive start, extending his NFL record for quarterbacks, and playing in his 160th consecutive game, the fourth-longest such streak in team history. The club record is 187 consecutive games, by Forrest Gregg, followed by Willie Wood (166), Larry McCarren (162) and Favre.
By playing in his 160th straight game, Favre moves into a tenth place tie with Dave Hanner for most games played in team annals.
HE'S KING OF THE HILL: When it comes to winning, Brett Favre stands alone among active starting quarterbacks in the National Football League. He goes into Sunday's opener with an imposing 103-54 won-lost record as a starting quarterback, a .656 percentage.
True, the St. Louis Rams' Kurt Warner is the percentage leader with an .814 career mark, (35-8) but he has started only 43 games to date.
Favre, meanwhile, is the only active starting quarterback with more than 100 victories. Drew Bledsoe, now with the Buffalo Bills, is next up with 63. Bledsoe, however, also has acquired 60 losses as a starting quarterback.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR/FAVRE IN '02: No. 4 needs to pass for 3,000 yards to become the first player in NFL history to record 11 consecutive 3,000-yard seasons. Favre currently holds the league mark of 10 seasons in a row.
Favre needs 1,925 passing yards to pass Vinny Testaverde (39,059), Johnny Unitas (40,239) and Joe Montana (40,551) to move into sixth place all-time. Favre has passed for 38,627 yards in 11 seasons.
In another category, Favre has thrown 287 touchdown passes in 11 seasons and needs 14 to pass Johnny Unitas (290), Warren Moon (291) and John Elway (300) for third all-time. In so doing, he also would become only the fourth player in NFL history to throw as many as 300 touchdown passes.
Favre has led the league in touchdown passes three times in his 11-year career and can tie Unitas, Len Dawson and Steve Young (four) for the most seasons leading the league in touchdown passes.
Favre needs 99 completions to pass Joe Montana (3,409) to move into fourth place all-time. Favre has completed 3,311 passes in 11 seasons.
THE CONFERENCE CALLS: Falcons quarterback Michael Vick will be available to Wisconsin's sports media via conference call at 10:30 Wednesday morning in the media work room of the Packers' administration building, to be followed by Head Coach Dan Reeves at 11 o'clock.
THE 'OLD GRADS:' In addition to being opening day, Sunday's inaugural also will be highlighted by the Packers' annual homecoming observance. More than 70 former players, representing almost every previous era in team history, will be taking part in the festivities.
The "old grads," including Pro Football Hall of Famers Bart Starr, Paul Hornung and Willie Davis, will be seated along Lambeau Field's northwest sideline and be introduced individually from the field at halftime.
Members of the Alumni also will take part in the annual celebrity golf tournament on Monday at Oneida Golf and Country Club, proceeds of which are donated to the Green Bay Boys' and Girls' Clubs.
NOTABLE PACKERS-FALCONS CONNECTIONS:
NFL ties: In 1991, the Falcons drafted Brett Favre in the second round (33rd overall, third quarterback behind Dan McGwire and Todd Marinovich)...Atlanta dealt Favre to Green Bay for a 1992 first-round pick, then traded that slot (No. 17) to the Cowboys (see Page 112 in Packers media guide for complete details)...In 1990, Packers offensive coordinator Tom Rossley (quarterbacks) and receivers coach Ray Sherman (assistant head coach), preceded Favre in Atlanta, on the Falcons staff...Emmitt Thomas, Atlanta secondary coach, was Green Bay defensive coordinator in 1999...Packers CB/KR Darrien Gordon spent the 2001 season with the Falcons...Former Packers John Thierry (2000-01) and Allen Rossum (2000-01) both moved to Atlanta this offseason; Thierry converted to linebacker...Green Bay O-line coach Larry Beightol served in a similar capacity for the Falcons from 1985-86...Billy Davis, current Falcons linebacker coach, in 2000 served as Green Bay's defensive assistant/quality control...Atlanta offensive assistant/quality control Ed West, a former tight end, played with Favre in Green Bay...Falcons running back Travis Jervey was in Green Bay from 1995-98.
College teammates: Todd McClure (Falcons) and Rondell Mealey and Craig Nall (Packers) at LSU...Bob Whitfield (Falcons) and Darrien Gordon (Packers) at Stanford...Ray Buchanan (Falcons) and Joe Johnson (Packers) at Louisville...Martin Bibla (Falcons) and Bubba Franks and Najeh Davenport (Packers) at Miami (Fla.).
Other connections: Ray Sherman also coached collegiately at Georgia (1986-87)...Jamal Reynolds, the Packers' 2001 first-round draft choice is an Augusta, Ga., native... Assistant college scouting director Shaun Herock was a Falcons ball boy as a youth, and interned with the team from 1989-92...College scouting coordinator Danny Mock worked for Atlanta from 1980-96, in the grounds, video and player personnel departments...Green Bay scout Lenny McGill played for both the Packers (1994-95) and Falcons (1996-97)...Atlanta scout Boyd Dowler joined the Packers as a receiver in 1959, Vince Lombardi's first season as head coach.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: The Packers presumably warmed the heart of GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman - a firm believer that the turnover is football's most significant statistic - by closing out the preseason tied with the New Orleans Saints for NFC honors in the takeaway-giveaway table with a plus-7 reading.
The Packers emerged from the 4-game slate with 10 takeaways - 4 interceptions and six fumble
recoveries - and only 3 giveaways...2 opponent interceptions and one lost fumble.
Offensively, the Packers ranked fourth in the NFC (seventh in rushing and fifth in passing). They were sixth on defense (fifth against the run and 11th against the pass).
Overall, the Green and Gold ranked 11th in the NFL on offense (15th in rushing and 11th In passing) and 18th on defense (10th against the run and 25th against the pass).
Individually, Packers placekicker Ryan Longwell finished third in NFC scoring with 32 points (8/8 field goals and 8/8 PAT).
Quarterback Doug Pederson emerged as the NFC's fifth-ranked passer with a 98.5 rating, based on 25 completions in 41 attempts for 289 yards and 2 touchdowns, without an interception.
Also finishing in the top ten were rookies Tony Fisher (ninth) and Javon Walker (tied for eighth) in NFC rushing and receiving yards, respectively, Fisher gaining 121 yards in 26 attempts, a 4.7-yard average, and Walker posting 189 yards with 11 receptions, a 17.2-yard average.
Rookie running back Najeh Davenport ranked tenth among kickoff return leaders with a 24.8-yard average for 5 runbacks and Hurley Tarver finished in an 8-way tie for NFC interception honors with 2 picks.