Continuing to hang their collective hat on a punishing ground game, with dramatic results, the Green Bay Packers (6-5) stayed tight on the heels of NFC North Division leader Minnesota with a 20-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers (5-6) in Lambeau Field over the weekend.
The surging Green and Gold thus take a two-game winning streak on the road in a Thanksgiving Day invasion of Detroit's Ford Field (Nov. 27) for a nationally televised encounter with the (3-8) Lions, division rivals.
Kickoff for the contest, which will find the Packers and Lions clashing for the 147th time in a series dating back to 1930, is set for 11:37, CST (Wisconsin time).
While the Packers were disposing of the 49ers, Minnesota (7-4) was clinging to its one-game advantage over Green Bay, pulling away in the stretch to turn back the Lions, 24-14, the victory ending a four-game losing streak for the Vikings.
The Green and Gold, winning for the third time in the last four weeks, dominated the 49ers with an impressive exhibition of power football, rushing for 243 yards and parlaying their league-leading average to 173.5 yards per game while the burgeoning defense was limiting the visitors to less than 200 yards of offense (192).
With five games remaining, the Packers are on pace to set a new team single-season rushing record (2,775 yards). The current record, 2,460, was set by the 1964 Packers.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Joe Buck will call the play-by-play for the Fox Sports Network telecast of the Packers' Thanksgiving Day game against the Detroit Lions and Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman will provide the commentary and analysis, with Pam Oliver reporting from the sideline. Richie Zyontz is the producer and Artie Kemper directs.
The game also will be broadcast over the Packers Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee handling the play-by-play and Larry McCarren the analysis. The broadcast will be available to NFL Field Pass subscribers on www.packers.com.
Additionally, the game will be aired nationally - in both English and Spanish - by Westwood One/CBS Radio Sports. Dave Sims will call the play-by-play and John Riggins will offer the analysis for the English broadcast, with Dan Miller reporting from the field and Armando Talavera, Alvaro Martin and Clemson Smith-Muniz will broadcast the game in Spanish from the network studios in New York.
THE SERIES: The Packers, admittedly, have had the upper hand of late but few rivalries around the National Football League approach their series with the Detroit Lions in terms of longevity and tradition and - over the rivalry's eight-decade span - in competitive intensity.
From the longevity perspective alone, the rivalry ranks among the most venerable in NFL annals. It dates back to 1930, a year in which the Packers were en route to the second of three consecutive league championships and the current Detroit franchise was situated in Portsmouth, Ohio, where the team was known as the Spartans.
The Portsmouth franchise was sold to G.A. Richards in 1934 and moved to Detroit, where the team was re-christened the Lions. It also was in '34 that the Lions hosted their first Thanksgiving Day game, a tradition they and the Packers will be renewing in Ford Field Thursday.
Over the intervening seven decades, the rivalry has become one of the NFL's most tightly contested, a circumstance underscored by the fact that the average scoring differential over their 146 meetings has been a mere 2.45 points per game.
Along the way, it has developed a special flavor, in part the nostalgic byproduct of having squared off on Thanksgiving Day no fewer than 16 times over the years.
At the moment, the Packers own a 15-game advantage in the series overall - traceable in large measure to a six-game winning streak that they will be carrying into Thursday's matchup. They have won 77 games (including this year's first encounter, in Green Bay, 31-6) while losing 62. There additionally have been 7 ties, the most recent a 13-13 standoff in Lambeau Field in 1973.
The Packers and Lions also have met twice in postseason play, with Green Bay prevailing in both contests, the Green and Gold pulling out a last-minute, 28-24 victory by way of a 40-yard scoring pass from Brett Favre to Sterling Sharpe in their first such encounter, a wild-card playoff at the Pontiac, Mich., Silverdome following the 1993 season.
In another wild card showdown, in "Lambeau" on Dec. 31, 1994, the Packers' smothering defense accomplished the "impossible," limiting the redoubtable Barry Sanders to a minus-1 yard rushing in 13 attempts and the Lions to -4 yards rushing as a team - an NFL playoff record - in a 16-12 win.
THE THANKSGIVING DAY RECORD: There was a time when Thursday's imminent Packers holiday matchup with the Lions in Detroit was an annual affair. They, in fact, met on Thanksgiving Day for 13 consecutive years - from 1951 through 1963 - until then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle responded to the late Vince Lombardi's entreaties and granted his request to implement an opponent rotation system for the game because he felt it was unfair, competitively, to require the Packers to play in Detroit every Thanksgiving Day, thus annually playing two games in five days and having to play on the road in each holiday contest.
Overall, the Packers have made 16 Thanksgiving Day appearances against the Lions, with Detroit leading the turkey day series, 10-5. There also has been one tie, a 13-13 stalemate played in 1963.
One of their most memorable Thanksgiving Day meetings - certainly from the Packers' perspective - occurred on Nov. 27, 1986. On that occasion, Walter Stanley returned a Detroit punt 83 yards for a touchdown in the final minute of play to give Green Bay a 44-40, come-from-behind victory over the Lions.
THE COACHES: Highly consistent, invariably positive and meticulously prepared, Michael Francis Sherman presided over more victories in his first three seasons (33) than any other head coach in the Packers' 84-year annals - more than team founder Curly Lambeau, more than Vince Lombardi and more than Mike Holmgren - the other winning head coaches in the history or professional football's most successful franchise.
In that highly successful three-year span, (2000-2002), Sherman also has proceeded to entrench himself in what have become substantially expanded responsibilities (he added executive vice president and general manager to his résumé after one season as head coach) while escorting 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, earning Sherman Staples 'Coach of the Year' honors for the '02 season.
Shouldering the additional duties with typically total commitment, and literally without missing a step, Sherman led the Packers to back-to-back 12-4 records in 2001 and 2002, the Green and Gold thus becoming the winningest team in the league over that two-year span (24-8). 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 in team annals (12 or more victories in back-to-back seasons).
In the overall process, the 48-year-old Northborough, Mass., native also has rivaled the regular season accomplishments of the storied Lombardi over a comparable span, compiling a 33-15-0 mark 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 the Packers' head coach and general manager (1959-61).
Additionally, Sherman, currently the possessor of a 39-20 won-lost record as Green Bay's field leader, equaled another Lombardi accomplishment by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season (2001) at the controls.
Along the way, he has made Lambeau Field an uncomfortable place for NFL rivals to visit. Since he established residence at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in 2000, the Green and Gold have forged an imposing 24-6 record in "Lambeau" under his leadership - the best regular-season record in the NFL during that span - including the league's only perfect record (8-0) in 2002.
The first man in a half-century to take on his tri-cornered roles - since 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 Seattle staff in 1999.
Now in his 26th year in the coaching profession, the imposing Central Connecticut State University alumnus 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 respected programs as UCLA and Texas A&M.
Forty-seven-year-old Steve Mariucci is a Michigan native - he hails from Iron Mountain in the state's Upper Peninsula - who returned to his state-wide roots to become the 22nd head coach in Detroit's professional football history after establishing himself as one of the elite coaches in the NFL during a highly successful, six-year tenure with the San Francisco 49ers.
Mariucci, who earlier began his NFL coaching career with the Packers, compiled a 60-43 record at San Francisco, his teams earning playoff berths four times (1997, 1998, 2001 and 2002) and his résumé including an imposing 38-14 record at home.
The possessor of other impressive credentials, Mariucci is one of 13 coaches since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to lead his team to a division title in his first season. He also established an NFL mark for consecutive wins by a rookie head coach with an 11-game winning streak.
A three-time All-America quarterback at Northern Michigan University as a collegian, Mariucci made his pro coaching debut in 1985 when he was receivers/tight ends coach for the USFL's Orlando Renegades. Later that fall, he had a brief stint with the Los Angeles Rams as a quality control coach.
Mariucci then joined the Packers (1992-95) as the quarterbacks coach on Mike Holmgren's original staff and guided Brett Favre to his first league Most Valuable Player award in 1995.
He subsequently left Green Bay in 1996 to become head coach at the University of California-Berkeley, guiding the Bears to a 5-0 start and a berth in the Hula Bowl before taking over the 49ers in 1997.
Mariucci earlier had launched his coaching career at his alma mater, Northern Michigan (1978-79), moving to Cal State-Fullerton (1980-82) and Louisville (1983-84). He joined the Southern California staff in 1986, then moved to California-Berkeley in 1987, later serving as the Bears' offensive coordinator in 1990-91.
THE LAST TIME: The Packers, rebounding from an opening weekend misadventure against Minnesota, controlled both the football and the clock en route to a 31-6 victory over the Lions in their first '03 encounter (Sept. 14).
The Packers' most potent running game since Week One of the 2002 regular season, coupled with a tightfisted defense, were integral factors in the successful "project."
With running back Ahman Green exploding off right tackle on a 65-yard excursion on the second play from scrimmage, the Packers continued to dominate throughout the first half, expeditiously adding another touchdown on their second possession, one which saw quarterback Brett Favre preside over a 13-play, 59-yard drive that he climaxed with a shovel pass to running back Tony Fisher, who lunged into the end zone from 5 yards out.
Detroit managed to retaliate with a pair of second quarter field goals by Jason Hanson, efforts "interrupted" by a 46-yard Ryan Longwell bullseye, but that was to be the extent of the Lions' scoreboard activity for the afternoon.
The Packers were to score twice more after the intermission, the first time on a 14-yard Favre strike to wide receiver Robert Ferguson - following rookie linebacker Nick Barnett's interception and 14-yard return to the Detroit 19-yard-line in the third quarter - and for the fourth and final time on a 56-yard scoring runback of a fourth-quarter interception by right cornerback Al Harris, the Packers' fourth and last takeaway of the day.
The defense, meanwhile, was holding quarterback Joey Harrington and the Lions scoreless over those final 30 minutes.
In the overall process, the Packers amassed 200 yards rushing - their best such production since the opening game of the 2002 season when they rushed for 211 yards in a 37-34 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Lambeau Field.
And, in so doing, Green Bay controlled the football for 32 minutes and 44 seconds while the Lions had to settle for 27 minutes and 16 seconds.
The "possession" advantage was due in no small measure to the artistry of Green, who registered the 15th 100-yard rushing performance of his four-year Packers career, rolling up 160 yards in 23 attempts, a 7.0-yard average.
Green's success did not come as a surprise, the day being one better suited to running than throwing the football. A steady rain fell throughout the game on an exceedingly wet weekend that produced 2.54 inches of rain.
On the other side of the football, the defense throttled Detroit's attack, limiting the Lions to 17 rushing and 84 total net yards in the first half - and to just 52 yards rushing overall.
Linebackers Nick Barnett, Na'il Diggs and Hannibal Navies and safety Darren Sharper were the ringleaders in this project.
Barnett, making an impressive "statement" in only his second NFL game, complemented his first pro interception with a wide-ranging, 14-tackle effort that included a dozen unassisted stops.
Diggs weighed in with 7 solo tackles and 3 passes defensed and Naives and Sharper each contributed 5 tackles apiece. Additionally, Sharper was credited with 2 passes defensed and Navies with one.
Antonio Freeman, who had rejoined the team in midweek after a one-year absence, made his first catch of the game for a first down on the Packers' drive to a Ryan Longwell field goal and emerged as the team's leading receiver with 4 receptions for 32 yards.
THE LAST TURKEY DAY MEETING: Green Bay (7-3) built a 16-point lead, then weathered a stout Detroit comeback to deny the Lions in one of the better Thanksgiving games in recent memory, 29-27, on Nov. 22, 2001. A historic contest, it marked the Packers' final appearance in the Pontiac Silverdome, and their first Turkey Day game since '94.
The Packers, clad in their 1939 replica uniforms, led 29-13 with 7:06 left in regulation. Detroit then ran 22 consecutive offensive plays, after a Ryan Longwell field, a drive ended when Lamont Warren plunged into the end zone from 1 yard out. Two fourth-down conversions and three Packers penalties kept the drive afloat.
After the Lions (0-10) converted a two-point conversion, cutting Green Bay's lead to eight, Todd Lyght recovered the ensuing onside kickoff at the Packers' 31. Four plays later, on fourth-and-8 with 18 seconds remaining, backup quarterback Mike McMahon hit Scotty Anderson on a 29-yard touchdown, making the score 29-27. But Detroit couldn't convert a second straight two-point conversion, and Darren Sharper recovered the ensuing onside kick to end the Lions threat.
Green Bay built its large lead off turnovers. Bhawoh Jue, making his first NFL start (in place of LeRoy Butler), forced a fumble on Detroit's first play from scrimmage. Green Bay then drove 80 yards and scored on Ahman Green's 26-yard run. Then, early in the second half, Nate Wayne's interception set up the Packers near midfield, and Brett Favre found Green on a 35-yard touchdown. The Packers also got a safety, when John Thierry tackled Warren in the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: Ahman Green, author of yet another 100-yard rushing performance (a 154-yard effort against San Francisco Sunday), continues to lead the National Football League in total yards from scrimmage with 1,654 yards (1,326 rushing and 328 receiving).
- Leads the NFC in rushing (1,326 yards)
- Leads the NFC in non-kicker scoring with 84 points (on 14 touchdowns) and
- Leads the NFL in the production of first downs with 90 (74 rushing and 16 receiving)
Additionally, Green owns a perfect 100.0 percent ranking in third-and-one rushing with 7 conversions in as many attempts.
His 192-yard rushing performance against Philadelphia Nov. 10 also remains the NFC's best to date in the '03 season.
Quarterback Brett Favre continues to rank fourth in NFC passing with an 84.7 rating, based upon 206 completions in 317 attempts for 2,062 yards and a league-leading 20 touchdowns, with 15 interceptions.
Favre also ranks sixth in NFC third-down passing with a 76.7 rating, based upon 57 completions in 94 attempts for 603 yards and 8 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions, and eighth in fourth-quarter passing with a 76.3 rating, on 50 completions in 78 attempts for 469 yards and 4 TDs, with 4 interceptions.
On the defensive side of the football, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila now ranks seventh in the NFC in quarterback sacks with 6.0 and linebacker Nick Barnett is tied for ninth in interceptions with 3.
Placekicker Ryan Longwell is tied for fifth place in NFC kick scoring with 78 points with 33 conversions in 33 attempts and 15 field goals in 17 tries.
Punter Josh Bidwell ranks seventh among NFC punters with 41.9-yard average for 44 punts
and sixth in net average (35.9).
Antonio Chatman holds ninth place among NFC punt returners with a 9.4-yard average for 20 runbacks.
From the team perspective, the offense ranks fifth in the league as a whole, largely because of its league-leading rushing attack. It is 25th in passing at the moment.
Defensively, the Packers rank 21st overall (14th against the run and 21st against the pass).
The offense stills leads the NFC in the "inside-the-20" category. It has had 36 possessions and scored 196 points (24 touchdowns and 9 field goals), posting a 66.7 touchdown percentage.
The statistics listed do not include those from the week's Monday night game between Tampa Bay and the New York Giants.