THE GAME: Half-way home, it doesn't get a whole lot better than this...
Off to their best start since the Super Bowl year of '96 and riding a six-game winning streak - their longest in a decade - the Green Bay Packers find themselves with the National Football League's best record (7-1) at the midpoint of the 2002 season.
Also with a substantial four-game lead in the NFC's North Division, where they next will encounter their closest divisional rivals, the Detroit Lions (3-5), who invade Lambeau Field next Sunday (Nov. 10).
Kickoff for the contest, the customary season ticket sellout (65,290) will be 12 noon, CST.
In the wake of that sixth straight success, a 24-10 conquest of the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins on ABC's "Monday Night Football," GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman was quick to put the Packers' situation in practical and conservative perspective.
"I'm proud that we started the night with the best record in the National Football League," he said, "and I'm proud that we finished the night with the best record in the National Football League.
"But we still have a lot of games to play," Sherman cautioned. "And, as I told the team last night, in Green Bay they don't measure you by winning games, they measure you by winning championships.
"And we won a bunch of games last year but what did we accomplish? (The Packers went 12-4 in the regular season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs before losing to the St. Louis Rams).
"So I think our team is trying to make a statement. I asked them to be hungry for more than just winning a football game...and I think they displayed some of that" against Miami.
In the Lions, the Packers will be encountering a team that has won three of its last five games (26-21 over the NFC-South leading New Orleans Saints, 23-20 in overtime over the Chicago Bears and 9-7 over the Dallas Cowboys).
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Joe Buck will call the play-by-play for the Fox Sports Network's telecast of Sunday's game, with Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth providing the analysis and Pam Oliver reporting from the field.
The game also will be aired over the Packer Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee handling the play-by-play and Larry McCarren offering commentary and analysis. The radio broadcast also will be available on the internet via www.packers.com.
JUST FOR THE RECORD: The Packers last forged a 7-1 season start in '96, when they won 8 of their first 9 games en route to a 13-3 regular-season record and an eventual, 35-21 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.
They most recently fashioned a six-game, in-season winning streak in 1992, a year in which they rebounded to finish 9-7 after losing 6 of their first 9 games.
THE SHERMAN STREAK: Under Mike Sherman, the Packers now have won 19 straight games in which they have been leading at halftime.
Also under Sherman, the Green and Gold own the league's best won-lost record over the past 28 regular season games...23-5.
And a 4-0 record this season in Lambeau Field, where Sherman has orchestrated a 17-3 regular season record for his 2-1/2 seasons in Green Bay.
THE 'MONDAY NIGHT' RECORD: With their latest victory, the Packers now own a 20-18-1 overall record on ABC's "Monday Night Football."
The win was their fourth straight, including victories over Washington (37-0) and Jacksonville (28-21) in 2001 and their 34-21 conquest of the Chicago Bears at Champaign, Ill., Oct. 7.
For GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman, it was the fifth victory in six appearances on 'MNF.'
THE SERIES: It is turnabout time...structurally speaking...with respect to the Packers' historic series with the Detroit Lions, now in its 73rd year.
On September 22, the Lions introduced the Packers to their new, $500 million Ford Field, then hosting a regular-season game for the first time.
It was not a particularly happy occasion for the Lions, the Packers having departed the scene with a 37-31 victory.
We now fast forward seven weeks to next Sunday, a day on which the Green and Gold will welcome Detroit to the largely renovated Lambeau Field, a $295 million project which is rapidly converting "Lambeau" into one of the showplace venues of the National Football league.
Beyond the impressive trappings, Sunday's principals will be renewing one of professional football's storied rivalries. The Packers and Lions have crossed paths 144 times in a series that dates back to 1930, a time when the NFL was just launching the second decade of its existence and what was to become the Detroit franchise was located in Portsmouth, Ohio, and known as the Spartans.
During the intervening seven decades, the rivalry has developed into one of the NFL's most competitive, as evidenced by the fact that the average scoring differential over those 144 previous meetings has been a scant 2.1 points per game.
At the moment, however, the Packers own a 12-game advantage, based in large measure on recent success, which has seen them win their last four meetings with the Lions. Overall, they have won 75 games while losing 62, and there have been 7 ties - the most recent a 13-13, Lambeau Field standoff in 1973.
The longtime adversaries also have met twice in postseason play, with Green Bay winning both games, 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, equally memorable for a dramatically different scenario, the late Fritz Shurmur's Packers defense turned in one of the most remarkable performances in pro football history, limiting Detroit's gifted running back, Barry Sanders, to a minus-1 yard rushing (in 13 attempts) in Lambeau Field on December 31, 1994, en route to setting an all-time NFL record, holding the Lions to -4 yards on the ground as a team.
Sunday's rivals also are well remembered for their tightly contested Thanksgiving Day "series" which annually found them invading the nation's living rooms via television on the holiday for 13 consecutive years (1951-63) - until then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle granted the late Vince Lombardi's urgent request to implement an opponent rotation system because he felt it was unfair, competitively, to require the Packers to play in Detroit every Thanksgiving Day, thus annually playing two games within five days.
Though Rozelle ended that custom for the Packers in '63, they have met the Lions three times on Thanksgiving Day in the interim - 1984, '86 and '01, the latter yielding another holiday classic as the Packers persevered to edge the Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome.
THE HEAD COACHES: Highly consistent, invariably positive and meticulously prepared, Mike Sherman has - in just two-and-a-half seasons, established himself among the elite head coaches in the National Football League - and the premier field leaders in the Packers' distinguished history.
Ever since succeeding Ray Rhodes in January, 2000, he has demonstrated exceptional coaching acumen, attracting league-wide recognition by consistently paralleling the won-lost achievements of the storied Vince Lombardi on game-by-game basis. So closely, to be precise, that he is dead even with Lombardi's 28-12 pace of 1959-62 at the same 40-game stage in their respective careers.
Equally impressive, from the overall perspective, Sherman has become only the fourth of the 13 head coaches in the Packers' 82-year history to forge a winning career record, thus joining an exclusive fraternity whose membership additionally includes only team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
En route, the thoroughgoing New Englander has matched another Lombardi accomplishment by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season as head coach and, beyond that, gone one up on him by maneuvering Green Bay to victory in his first postseason effort. The latter is an accomplishment that eluded Lombardi, who lost his initial playoff game as Green Bay's field leader.
In 2000, when a head coach for the first time at any level, Sherman debuted by leading the Green and Gold to a 9-7 record, a season climaxed by a sweep of the Packers' four NFC Central Division rivals (Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and Tampa Bay), a singular achievement.
Despite assuming the additional and imposing responsibilities of executive vice president and general manager following Ron Wolf's retirement, he subsequently guided the Packers to a glittering 12-4 record, a single-season victory total previously surpassed by only three teams in club history.
Sherman then embellished 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 shoulder his multiple responsibilities - since the pioneer, 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 XXXI 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 a 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 Lions' Marty Mornhinweg, a former Packers coaching aide, is in his second year as the 21st head coach of the Lions. He took over the Detroit post after spending four years as offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers under Steve Mariucci (1997-2000).
Mornhinweg's offense ranked fourth in the NFL overall in 2000 - his final year in San Francisco - amassing 6,040 yards, and also led the NFL in rushing in two consecutive seasons (1998-99), including a club record 2,544 yards in 1998.
Mornhinweg began his pro coaching career with the Packers (1995-96), serving as Green Bay's offensive assistant/quality control coach in 1995 and as the team's quarterback coach in 1996 when the Green and Gold went on to win the Super Bowl.
As a collegian, he played quarterback at the University of Montana, where he was the school's starting field general for four years and established 15 school passing records.
THE LAST TIME: Although they enjoyed a substantial margin in almost every statistical department, the Packers' first 2002 encounter with the Lions (September 22) turned out to be a nail-biter before it was favorably "resolved" in the final minute of play.
The Packers held a somewhat tenuous, 37-31 lead at that point, when the Lions were in possession of a first down at the Green Bay 34-yard line.
Fortunately, defensive back Tod McBride came to the rescue, picking off a Joey Harrington pass intended for tight end Mikhael Ricks at the Green Bay 3-yard line with 30 seconds remaining to finally settle the issue.
A study of the statistics, however, paints an entirely different - if slightly unreliable - picture. The Packers:
- Out-gained Detroit, 442 yards to 271.
- Posted 22 first downs to the Lions' 14.
- Passed for 347 net yards to the Lions' 176; and
- Also ran off 79 plays to the Lions' 57.
And, in the process, the Packers also mounted a major advantage in time of possession--38 minutes, 54 seconds to Detroit's 21 minutes, 6 seconds.
A key factor in the game's "pattern" may well have been the fact that the Lions were able to stay with the highly-favored Packers throughout the first half, which ended in a 17-17 tie, perhaps giving the home forces hopes of an upset.
The way that they scored also may well have provided the Lions with major emotional impetus, A-Zahir Hakim scoring on a 72-yard punt return reverse and running back Lamont Warren on a 39-yard touchdown pass from Harrington.
Happily, the Packers were able to retaliate with some significant strikes of their own, rookie Marques Anderson returning his first NFL interception 78 yards for a score, and quarterback Brett Favre rifling a 21-yard touchdown pass to split end Donald Driver.
The teams' specialists, the Packers' Ryan Longwell and the Lions' Jason Hanson, each kicked a field goal to help produce the halftime standoff.
As frequently has been the case, it was Favre who provided the momentum for Green Bay's victory, passing for two more touchdowns and presiding over a pair of field goal drives in the second half.
Favre put the Packers ahead to stay midway through the third quarter with an 8-yard TD pass to wideout Robert Ferguson in the heart of the end zone, then erected what appeared to be a comfortable lead with a 3-yard scoring pass to tight end Bubba Franks with 1:30 left in the period.
Early in the fourth quarter, things looked even brighter when Longwell kicked a second field goal, padding Green Bay's lead to 34-17.
But the Lions were far from through, it turned out. Larry Foster engineered a 50-yard return of the ensuing kickoff and five plays and one penalty later, Detroit fullback Corey Schlesinger scored on a one-yard run, Hanson's conversion making it 34-24.
The Packers next were required to punt after a pair of first downs, but the situation looked relatively secure with the Lions taking over at their own 5-yard line following Josh Bidwell's boot.
Harrington shortly had the Lions in the end zone again, this time on a 52-yard pass-run hookup with running back James Stewart. Hanson's conversion pared the Packers' lead to 34-31.
It remained for Darren Sharper to interrupt the Lions' comeback. He recovered a subsequent onside kick at the Detroit 35-yard line and, three plays later and just over a minute remaining, Longwell kicked a 47-yard field goal to end an "interesting" afternoon's scoring.
NOTABLE PACKERS-LIONS CONNECTIONS:
NFL ties: Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg (1995) is one of nine current head coaches who spent time previously on a Green Bay staff (also Mike Holmgren, Dick Jauron, Steve Mariucci, Dick LeBeau, Jon Gruden, Andy Reid, Tom Coughlin and Mike Sherman)...Sherman Lewis spent eight years as a Green Bay assistant...Three current Packers assistants (Sylvester Croom, Frank Novak and Pat Ruel) spent time previously on the Lions' staff...Detroit's Ty Detmer is one of 10 former Brett Favre backups who've gone on to start an NFL game...Bill Schroeder, Donte Curry, Desmond Howard and Brian Williams have also had stints in the Green Bay organization.
College teammates: Az-Zahir Hakim (Lions) and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (Packers) at San Diego State...Travis Kirschke (Lions) and Mike Flanagan and Tod McBride (Packers) at UCLA...Stockar McDougle (Lions) and Torrance Marshall (Packers) at Oklahoma...John Owens (Lions) and Tony Fisher (Packers) at Notre Dame...Dominic Raiola (Lions) and Steve Warren (Packers) at Nebraska...Cory Schlesinger (Lions) and Ahman Green and Tyrone Williams (Packers) at Nebraska.
Other connections: Green Bay's Gilbert Brown, a Detroit native and current resident, starred at the city's MacKenzie High School in the late 1980s...Detroit's Lamar Campbell (Wisconsin), Clint Kriewaldt (UW-Stevens Point) and Schroeder (UW-La Crosse) are products of Wisconsin colleges...Packers coaches Stan Drayton (Eastern Michigan), Novak (Northern Michigan) and Ray Sherman (Michigan State) have spent portions of their careers at Michigan schools.
THE FAVRE FILE: Favre enhanced his perfect "cold weather" record in guiding the Packers past the Dolphins. It was the 32nd victory of his career when the game-time temperature is 34 degrees or below. The kickoff temperature for Monday night's game was 30 degrees.
It was the 26th regular-season "cold weather" win for Favre, who also owns a 6-0 such record for the postseason.
It also was Favre's 70th "home" victory as a starting quarterback, compared to only 12 losses, an.854 percentage, an NFL record for quarterbacks who launched their careers since 1950.
Favre likewise improved his "Monday Night Football" record to 13-8 for 21 appearances on the prime time showcase.
HISTORY-MAKER: Additionally, Favre made Packers history Monday night by playing in his 167th consecutive game, now the second-longest such streak in team history. In so doing, he passed Willie Wood, who also had played in 166 consecutive games.
Favre now trails only offensive tackle Forrest Gregg (1956, '58-70), who holds the Packers' record for most consecutive games played, 187.
THE GREEN FILE: Ahman Green, again a dominating presence, emerged as the game's leading rusher and receiver, rushing 19 times for 72 yards and one touchdown, and snaring 6 passes for 71 yards and a second touchdown - thus personally accounting for 143 of the Packers' 270 net yards of offense.
In the process, Green moved past Eddie Lee Ivery into ninth place on the Packers' lifetime list for most combined rushing and receiving yards with 4,655. Green has rushed for 3,274 yards in 729 attempts and added 1,381 receiving yards with 164 catches.
Ivery closed out his Green Bay career (1979-86) with 4,545 yards (2,933 rushing and 1,612 receiving).
Green continued to entrench himself among the durable and productive running backs in Packers history. With his 19 rushing attempts against the Dolphins, he has logged 101 carries over his last four games, thus becoming only the third running back in team annals to do so. He previously had posted 27 attempts against the Chicago Bears (Oct. 7), 31 against New England (Oct. 13) and 24 against Washington (Oct. 20).
Jim Taylor was the first Packer to forge the four-game, 100-rush package, recording 27, 26, 30 and 18 attempts in four successive outings, and Dorsey Levens has been the only other, fashioning a record 103-attempts package with 33, 31, 11 and 17 carries in four consecutive games.
THE SHARPER FILE: Darren Sharper's 89-yard interception return for a touchdown was the fourth defensive touchdown of his six-year NFL career - and his first since 1997, when he scored three touchdowns to tie a club record - two on interceptions and one on a fumble recovery and run.
The interception, which also came on Sharper's return to the starting lineup after sitting out two games with a hamstring injury, was his fourth of the season and the 24th of his career.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: With another highly successful "harvest,' the Packers widened their lead in the NFL's takeaway-giveaway standings. Emerging from their victory over Miami with a net of three, they now own a plus-15 reading.
San Francisco continues as runner-up with a plus-10 mark, identical to last week's reading.
The Packers now have registered a league-best 27 takeaways (14 interceptions and 13 recoveries of opponent fumbles), compared to 4 opponent interceptions and 8 lost fumbles.
The Packers' rankings remained largely unchanged elsewhere. Seventh a week ago on offense, they are now tied for eighth place (13th in rushing and ninth in passing). Eleventh alone last week, they now are tied with Miami for that position (24th against the run and ninth against the pass).
Sprained knee or not, quarterback Brett Favre continues to lead the league's passer ratings with a 100.2 rating, based upon 169 completions in 258 attempts for 1,893 yards and 15 touchdowns, with only 4 interceptions.
Favre also ranks fifth in NFC third-down passing with an 86.8 rating, based upon 43 completions in 71 attempts for 523 yards 2 touchdowns, with one interception, and seventh in fourth-quarter passing with an 85.0 rating, based upon 28 completions in 45 attempts for 256 yards and one touchdown, without an interception.
Teammate Ahman Green ranks third in both rushing (712 yards in 162 attempts, a 4.4-yard average) and total yards from scrimmage (940, his total including 228 yards receiving).
Green also is tied for third in the NFC in the production of first downs with 42 (31 rushing and 11 receiving).
Split end Donald Driver ranks seventh in the NFC in receiving yards with 587 on 35 receptions a total which has him tied with Tampa Bay's Michael Pittman for 12th place with a 16.8-yard average.
Safety Darren Sharper, forging his fourth interception, moved into a tie for the league lead. He shares with six others, two in the NFC and four in the AFC.
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, vaulting among the league leaders with 2.5 sacks against the Dolphins, is now tied with Tampa Bay's Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp for second place in the NFL as a whole with 7.5.
Ryan Longwell now ranks third in NFC kickers scoring with 71 points with 20 of conversions and 15 field goals in 20 attempts.
Punter Josh Bidwell stands ninth in the NFC with a 42.0-yard gross average for 38 punts.