THE GAME: Having afforded themselves the luxury of a two-game lead in the NFL's NFC North Division by virtue of dispatching their primary rivals, the Chicago Bears, the surging Green Bay Packers (4-1) next ready themselves for another challenging assignment against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (3-2) on Sunday (October 13).
Kickoff for the interconference showdown - before a capacity house of 68,000 fans in the Patriots' new state-of-the-art venue, Gillette Stadium - is set for 12 noon, CDT (Wisconsin time).
The Packers riding a three-game winning streak, will be winging east having matched their 4-1 start of a year ago, when they forged from that five-game point to a 12-4 overall record and their first playoff berth since 1998.
They added a game to their division lead on the second-place Bears (now 2-3) by way of a 34-21 victory over the Midway Monsters on ABC's "Monday Night Football" at University of Illinois Memorial Stadium, the temporary home of the Bears, whose Soldier Field venue is currently undergoing major renovation.
The Green and Gold's latest success is their seventh in their last eight regular-season games, dating back to Week 14 of the 2001 season, and 10th victory in their last 12 regular-season contests.
At New England, they will be in search of a fourth straight victory, in season, for the first time since 2000 when they closed out their first year under Mike Sherman by sweeping their last four games of the season.
The home-standing Patriots, in turn, will be striving to break a two-game losing streak, which has befallen them since opening the season with three consecutive victories - over Pittsburgh, the New York Jets and Kansas City.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Dick Stockton will call the play-by-play for the Fox Sports Network telecast of Sunday's game. Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman provide commentary and analysis and Pam Oliver will report from the field. Richie Zyontz is the producer and Artie Kemper directs.
The game also will be aired over the Packer Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee delivering the play-by-play and Larry McCarren handling the commentary and analysis. The broadcast also will be available on the internet via www.packers.com.
THE SERIES: Virtual strangers, competitively speaking, the Packers and Patriots will be squaring off for only the seventh time in regular-season play in a series which spans 28 years, their first meeting dating to 1973.
Poetically, the series is all even, each team having won three of the six previous encounters. The Packers squared accounts in their last meeting - a "Monday Night Football" matchup - forging a 28-10 victory at the Patriots' former home, Foxboro, Mass., Stadium on October 27, 1997.
Of late, the series record itself has appeared to be somewhat secondary to what transpired in Super Bowl XXXI at New Orleans, where the Packers turned back Bill Parcells' Patriots, 35-21, thus winning their third Super Bowl and ending a 29-year SB drought.
Though they rarely have met during the regular season, the Packers and Patriots have frequently crossed paths in preseason play, particularly in the last decade. They are even at 6-6 for a dozen such contests, the most recent in 1997, a year when the Green and Gold were en route to a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance. The Packers shaded the Pats 7-3 in that one, a Lambeau Field meeting (July 31).
THE HEAD COACHES: It has taken Mike Sherman, deeply committed, impeccably prepared and invariably consistent, little more than two years to carve out an imposing niche for himself among the premier head coaches in the Packers' storied history.
Since becoming the Packers' field leader in 2000, he has consistently paralleled the won-lost achievements of the fabled Vince Lombardi on a game-by-game basis - so closely, in fact, that his current 25-12 record is only a game off the Lombardi pace of 1959-61 at the same 37-game stage (26-11).
What is equally impressive, from the overall perspective, is that Sherman has become only the fourth of the 13 head coaches the in the team's 82-year history to forge a winning career record. He thus joins an elite and highly-exclusive fraternity, whose membership includes only team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
En route, the thoroughgoing New Englander also has matched another major Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season as a head coach and, moreover, has gone one up on him by escorting the Packers to victory in his first postseason. The latter is an accomplishment that eluded Lombardi, who lost his initial playoff game as Green Bay's field leader.
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, a season climaxed by a sweep of the Packers' four NFC Central Division rivals (Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and Tampa Bay), a rare accomplishment.
Then, despite assuming the additional and challenging responsibilities of executive vice president and general manager following Ron Wolf's unexpected retirement, he next maneuvered the Packers to an imposing 12-4 record in 2001, a single-season victory total previously 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 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 tri-cornered role - since Lambeau last functioned in those capacities 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 staff that led the Packers into SB XXXII against the Denver Broncos in at San Diego.
It was to be the first of three consecutive years in the playoffs for the purposeful Central Connecticut State University product, who returned to the postseason with the Packers in 1998 and as the offensive coordinator on Holmgen'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 regarded programs as UCLA and Texas A&M.
Bill Belichick, completing a sweeping rebuilding job in just two years' time, led the Patriots to pro football's heights in 2001, escorting New England to a 20-17 Super Bowl victory over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in SB XXXVI at New Orleans.
Taking to Belichick's new "team" philosophy with fervor, the Patriots closed out the '01 season by winning nine consecutive games, including playoff victories over Oakland, at Pittsburgh and in SB XXXVI to claim the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Belichick, long recognized as one of the league's premier defensive coaches, is now considered to be one of the NFL's preeminent game strategists. In the wake of New England's benchmark season, he also has been commended for completing one of the best coaching efforts in NFL history.
Including last season's Super Bowl title, Belichick's coaching contributions have led to three Super Bowls, four conference championships and eight division titles since 1986.
A 27-year NFL coaching veteran, he launched his career in 1975 as a special assistant with the Baltimore Colts. He later was an assistant on staffs at Detroit, Denver and the New York Giants, helping the Giants win two Super Bowl tittles in a four-year span.
THE LAST TIME: As it turned out, the Packers validated their '97 season in the third quarter of their "Monday Night Football" the evening of October 27. Nurturing a slim, 14-10 lead as the second half began in Foxboro Stadium, the Packers saw the Pats make a major bid to take charge. Gaining momentum following the third-quarter kickoff, they moved to the Green Bay 1-yard line in 7 plays, chief among them a 49-yard pass-run collaboration between Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe and wide receiver Terry Glenn.
There, however, the competitive complexion began to change abruptly. On first down, Santana Dotson and LeRoy Butler combined to stop the Pats' redoubtable Curtis Martin for no gain. Then followed three consecutive incomplete passes, the latter two broken up by left cornerback Tyrone Williams.
Quarterback Brett Favre and the Packers offense then administered the knockout punch, marshaling a 99-yard scoring drive, the longest of the NFL season to that point. A 17-play marathon, it chewed 9 minutes and 31 seconds off the clock.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Packers' performance was the length of all four-scoring drives. In addition to the 17-play, 99-yard effort, they marched 81 yards in 13 plays for their first score of the evening, capped by a 6-yard Favre flare pass to running back Dorsey Levens on a drive which timed out at 4 minutes, 43 seconds; a 9-play, 75-yard production for their second score, capped by a 32-yard Favre bullseye to tight end Mark Chmura, which took 1 minute, 50 seconds; and a 15-play, 85-yard drive for their final touchdown, finished off by Levens' 3-yard run
Favre, distributing the football among six receivers, completed 23 of 34 passes for 239 yards and 3 touchdowns - with no interceptions - and also rushed 9 times for 32 yards.
Levens, meanwhile, closed out highly productive evening with 100 yards rushing in 20 attempts, and caught 7 passes for 40 more.
SUPER BOWL XXXI: Pulling off several momentum-turning big plays, the Packers held off New England's grudging Patriots to claim their first world championship in 29 years with a 35-21 victory in Super Bowl XXXI at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
For the Packers, the triumph also represented their league-high 12th NFL championship as well as their third Super Bowl victory.
The Packers swept to an early 10-0 lead. Quarterback Brett Favre, sensing a New England blitz, audibled on Green Bay's second play from scrimmage and hit late-season pickup Andre Rison on a wide-open post pattern for a 54-yard touchdown pass. On the ensuing New England possession, cornerback Doug Evans intercepted Drew Bledsoe at the Patriots' 28, which led to a 37-yard field goal by Chris Jacke.
New England then was able to turn the tide in its favor, however, as Bledsoe took the Pats on two long drives for touchdowns. The first, which covered 79 yards, and culminated in a short pass to Keith Byars, was aided by two long throws to New England running backs and a 28-yard pass interference penalty. The second, starting at the New England 43, was spurred by a leaping, 44-yard reception by rookie Terry Glenn. When tight end Ben Coates caught a four-yard TD pass from Bledsoe, the Patriots temporarily had their only lead of the game and had completed the highest-scoring first quarter in Super Bowl history.
Green Bay rebounded to re-take the lead when Favre, seeing Patriots strong safety Lawyer Milloy at the line of scrimmage in tight coverage on Antonio Freeman, watched Freeman elude Milloy's "bump" and lofted a perfect aerial to Freeman along the right sideline. Freeman, able to out-run New England's late-arriving free safety, covered 81 yards for the longest reception in Super Bowl history. After another Jacke field goal, Favre took advantage of a Mike Prior interception and escorted his troops on a nine-play, 74-yard march just before halftime which ended when, on a bootleg left, he lunged the ball over the goal line as he was rolling out of bounds.
Carrying a 27-14 lead out of the locker room at halftime, the Packers maintained that lead until late in the third quarter, when the Patriots' Curtis Martin made a magnificent 18-yard run up the middle of the Packer defense to pull New England within six points at 27-21.
That margin was short-lived, though, as Desmond Howard returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a back-breaking touchdown (the longest in Super Bowl history), bursting through the center of the Packers' well-blocked wedge, then juking Patriots placekicker Adam Vinatieri to bolt free. Howard, who had 244 total return yards in the game, including key punt runbacks of 32 and 34 yards, was voted the game's most valuable player, thus becoming the first special teams player ever to be so honored. A subsequent 2-point conversion, where Favre found Chmura along the back of the end zone, gave the Green and Gold an insurmountable two-touchdown lead.
The top-ranked Green Bay defense, which had four interceptions of Bledsoe, was led by Reggie White, who sacked the New England quarterback a Super Bowl-record three times, including twice in a row on the possession immediately following Howard's scoring return.
Favre, playing less than an hour from his hometown of Kiln, Miss., completed 14 of 27 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, while his counterpart, Bledsoe, threw for 253 yards and two scores on 25-of-48 passing.
NOTABLE PACKERS-PATRIOTS CONNECTIONS:
NFL ties: Packers WR Terry Glenn spent his first six seasons (1996-2001) in a Patriots uniform...Patriots G Joe Andruzzi and CB Terrell Buckley played previously in Green Bay.
College teammates: Je'Rod Cherry (Patriots) and Ryan Longwell (Packers) at Cal...Rohan Davey and Jarvis Green (Patriots) and Craig Nall (Packers) at LSU...David Givens (Patriots) and Tony Fisher (Packers) at Notre Dame...Jimmy Hitchcock (Patriots) and William Henderson (Packers) at North Carolina...Mike Vrabel (Patriots) and Terry Glenn (Packers) at Ohio State.
Other connections: GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman, born in Norwood, Mass., attended both Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough and Central Connecticut State; Sherman also spent four years (1985-88) coaching at Holy Cross...What's more, offensive coordinator Tom Rossley (Holy Cross), tight ends coach Jeff Jagodzinski (Boston College), offensive line coach Larry Beightol (William & Mary), offensive assistant Darrell Bevell (UConn), special teams coach Frank Novak (Holy Cross), assistant head coach Bob Slowik (Delaware), and safety Darren Sharper (William & Mary), played and/or coached at New England area colleges...Novak went to Leominster (Mass.) High School...Patriots' WR Donald Hayes is a former Wisconsin Badger.