Christmas may have come early for the Green Bay Packers...
Their over-riding objective heading into the weekend was very specific: winning a football game at San Diego...by any method whatever...in order to stay in the NFL's playoff hunt.
And to graciously accept whatever else they might come by in the way of "assistance."
Lo and behold, the football fates smiled benignly. Not only did the Green and Gold acquire that much-needed victory in spectacular fashion, outgunning the Chargers, 38-21, but an attractive companion scenario also unfolded in connection with their success.
The details later, but the bottom line is the Packers now largely control their destiny in the playoffs, having climbed into a tie with Minnesota for the NFC North Division lead and become a sixth seed in the playoff picture at this point, with two games remaining.
Immediately upon the horizon: A quick return to California for a nationally televised, inter-conference matchup with the Raiders in Oakland on ABC's "Monday Night Football" next Monday night (Dec. 22).
Kickoff for the contest, in Oakland's Network Associates Coliseum, is set for 8 o'clock, CST (Wisconsin time).
While the Packers were overcoming the Chargers with the aid of an explosive, three-touchdown fourth quarter, there were welcome and complementary contributions from their long-time antagonists, the Chicago Bears, as well as the St. Louis Rams.
The Bears cooperated by upsetting the division-leading Vikings, 13-10, thus enabling the Packers to match Minnesota's record (8-6) and join the Purple Gang in the division penthouse.
The Rams, meanwhile, also contributed by defeating the Seattle Seahawks, 27-22. The Packers, their record now also matching the Seahawks' 8-6, thus moved ahead of Seattle into the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoff structure because of a tie-breaker advantage, having dispatched Seattle 35-13 in an Oct. 5 meeting in Lambeau Field.
The victory continued the Packers' most productive stretch of the season. It was their second win in a row and their fourth in the last five games.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Al Michaels will deliver the play-by-play for ABC's telecast of Monday night's game against the Raiders in Oakland and John Madden will provide the analysis, with Lisa Guerrero reporting from the sideline. Fred Gaudelli is the producer and Drew Esocoff directs.
The game also will be aired over the 62-station Packers Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee calling the play-by-play and Larry McCarren offering the analysis and commentary. The broadcast also will be available on www.packers.com to NFL Field Pass subscribers.
Additionally, the game will be broadcast nationally by CBS Radio Sports/Westwood One, with Marv Albert handling the play-by-play, Boomer Esiason providing the analysis and Kellen Winslow reporting from the field. Mike Eaby is the producer.
JUST AHEAD: Though the Packers now would be in the playoffs if they were to begin next weekend, they will need to win out (they host the formidable Denver Broncos in their regular season finale in Lambeau Field Dec. 28) in order to be assured of a berth in the NFL's postseason tournament.
ALL-TIME RECORDS, TOO: Sunday's success in San Diego was made all the more memorable by the record-breaking exploits of quarterback Brett Favre, running back Ahman Green and placekicker Ryan Longwell, each of whom surpassed a venerable Packers standard in the victorious process.
-The remarkable Favre threw a touchdown pass in a 23rd consecutive game (four, in fact, on this occasion), eclipsing the long-standing record of 22, set by Cecil Isbell over the 1941-42 seasons.
-Green, barging for 75 yards in 19 attempts, thus broke Jim Taylor's 41-year-old single-season rushing record (1,474 in 1962), swelling his total to 1,538 yards.
Green, incidentally, played in the same number of games, 14, that Taylor did in setting the record.
-Longwell, meanwhile, broke one of the most hallowed records in Packers history.
Entering the game with 818 points, 5 short of Hutson's 58-year-old mark (823 points), he delivered a 32-yard field goal in the final minute of the second quarter and five conversions to close out the day with 826 career points.
Longwell officially surpassed Hutson's record with his third conversion of the day, in the closing seconds of the third quarter, following Favre's 40-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Robert Ferguson.
Longwell had earlier passed second-ranking Chris Jacke, now third in Packers annals with 820 points, with his 32-yard, second-quarter field goal which had padded his career total to 821.
THE 'MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL' RECORD: The Packers and their hosts, the Oakland Raiders, will make "Monday Night Football" history when they square off in Network Associates Coliseum next Monday night.
They will be meeting for the very first time in the 33-year history of the prime time showcase, launched in 1970 - the year of the NFL's formal merger with the then-American Football League.
It is a remarkable "oversight," considering that the Packers have made 41 previous appearances on 'MNF,' eleven in the past five years alone, and that the Raiders have been on the "show" 57 times.
For the record, the Packers have won 21, lost 19 and tied 1, while the Raiders, who own the best record on 'MNF,' have won 36, lost 20 and also have had one tie.
Speaking of wins and losses, the Packers will be striving to get back on the winning track Monday night, having lost in their most recent appearance on 'MNF,' to the Philadelphia Eagles in Lambeau Field (17-14) the night of Nov. 10, 2003.
That misadventure ended a five-game Monday night winning streak for the Packers, dating back to a 37-0 triumph over the Washington Redskins Sept. 24, 2001.
In that successful period, the Packers forged over the .500 mark in the series for the first time since the mid-'80s.
THE SERIES: The Packers and Raiders launched their rivalry in the national spotlight...35 years ago...
Which is another way of saying their first ever encounter came in Super Bowl II (Jan. 14, 1968) when they were champions of the National and American Football Leagues, respectively. (The official merger of the two leagues, under the NFL umbrella as the National and American Football Conferences was still two years away).
The Packers, then the reigning Super Bowl champions, won the first "round," defeating the Raiders, 33-14, in SB II at Miami's Orange Bowl.
The Raiders, however, then had the better of it for a substantial period, winning each of their next five meetings, including a 20-0 shutout in their 1987 matchup in Lambeau Field, where they met on opening day.
But things have picked up substantially for the Packers in the series. They come into next Monday night's contest having won their last three meetings, a "trifecta" punctuated by a 28-0 shutout success in Lambeau Field on a frigid afternoon in December of 1993 - a day on which Packers safety LeRoy Butler was inspired to invent the "Lambeau Leap."
The Raiders, however, still own an advantage in the series - they lead it 5-3 - in which the principals have met only 8 times since that first encounter in Super Bowl II, a contest climaxed by Herb Adderley's 60-yard interception runback for Green Bay's final touchdown of the day.
The Packers will be paying only their fourth visit to the Raiders in their "relationship" - and their first regular-season matchup with the Silver and Black since 1990, when the Raiders were based in Los Angeles. The Packers won that one, 29-16, with the aid of a club-record 5 field goals by Chris Jacke.
THE COACHES: Mike Sherman, a study in organization, consistency and preparedness, has done something no other head coach in Packers history has done - win 40 regular season games in just four seasons at the controls.
Of the previous three, founder Curly Lambeau, coached in an era when NFL schedules were shorter, and won 21 games in his first four seasons (21-11-5).
Vince Lombardi weighed in with 39 wins in his first four years (39-13-0) and Mike Holmgren with 38 in his first four seasons (38-26-0).
Sherman, who acquired victory No. 40 with a 34-21 conquest of the Chicago Bears (Dec. 7) also is in position to become only the fourth of the 13 coaches the Packers have had to post as many as four consecutive winning seasons.
The unidirected New Englander, who turns 49 Friday (Dec. 19), goes into next Monday night's assignment against the Oakland Raiders with a 41-21 record, following a 9-7 mark in 2000, his first season as the Packers head coach, and back-to-back 12-4 records the past two seasons (2000 and 2001).
En route, Sherman has established himself in an extensively expanded role, having added the titles of executive vice president and general manager to his résumé after just one year as head coach, leading Green Bay to three consecutive winning seasons and - in 2002 - to its first division championship since 1997 and a second straight playoff berth...accomplishments which earned Sherman Staple 'Coach of the Year' honors.
After shouldering the additional duties, with typically total commitment and literally without missing a beat - he directed the Packers to successive 12-and-4 records, the Green and Gold thus becoming the winningest team in the NFL over that tow-year span (24-8-0).
Moreover, 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 (12 or more victories in successive years) in team annals.
Sherman also has rivaled the accomplishments of the storied Lombardi over a comparable period, compiling a 33-15-0 record in his first three full seasons (16-game campaigns) as opposed to Lombardi's 26-12-0 over a similar stretch (two 12-game seasons and one 14-game campaign) while serving as the Packers' head coach and general manager (1959-61).
Sherman has equaled another Lombardi achievement leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season.
Along the way, Sherman has made Lambeau Field a somewhat anti-social venue for NFL rivals to visit. Since he established residence at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in 2000, the Packers have forged an imposing 25-6 record in "Lambeau" under his leadership - the best regular-season home record in the league during that span, including the league's only perfect home record (8-0) in 2002.
The first man in a half-century to take on his tri-cornered roles - since Lambeau was vice president, general manager and head coach in 1949 - Sherman brings multiple credentials to his multiple responsibilities. They include a Super Bowl following the 1997 season, during which he was member of the Holmgren coaching staff that led Green Bay into Super Bowl XXXII against the Denver Broncos at San Diego.
It was to be the first of three consecutive visits to the playoffs for Sherman, who returned to the postseason with the Packers in 1998 and as the offensive coordinator on Holmgren's staff at Seattle in 1999.
Now in his 26th year in the coaching profession, he launched 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.
Bill Callahan, currently closing out his second year as head coach of the Raiders, led them to the top seed in the AFC and a berth in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002 in his first season in the role.
Callahan thus became just the fourth rookie coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl after guiding the Raiders to the Super Bowl in an NFL-record fourth decade.
In addition, Callahan is the third Raiders head coach to lead the team to an AFC West title and into the conference championship game in his first full season (Art Shell, 1990, and John Madden, 1969).
Under Callahan's guidance, the Raiders led the NFL in passing for the first time and led the league in total offense for just the second time in club-history. In 2002, with Callahan in his initial campaign as head coach, the Raiders broke team records for most total offensive yards (6,237), most first downs (366), most first downs passing (226), most passes attempted (619) and completed (418), most passing yards (4,689) and best passing percentage (67.5).
Aside from Callahan's Raiders in 2002, no other team has ever gone through the same season winning games after throwing at least 60 passes (65 on Sept. 15 at Pittsburgh, 30-17, W) and rushing at least 60 times (60 on Dec. 28 vs. Kansas City, 24-0, W).
Callahan was awarded Rookie Coach of the Years honors by Football Digest.
Callahan spent the 1998-2001 seasons as offensive coordinator for the Raiders. In addition to serving as offensive coordinator, Callahan also coached the Raiders' offensive line for the past three seasons and doubled as tight ends coach in 1998.
Prior to joining the Raiders, Callahan coached offensive line for the Philadelphia Eagles (1995-97) where he worked with former Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. In 1996, Callahan's offensive line unit helped the Eagles rank second in the NFC in rushing.
Earlier, Callahan coached collegiately at Illinois (1980-86), Northern Arizona (1987-88), and Southern Illinois (1989) and Wisconsin (1990-94).
As a collegian, Callahan was a three-year starter quarterback at Illinois Benedictine (1975-77), where he was an NAIA honorable mention All-American his final two seasons.
THE LAST TIME: A remarkably gritty performance by quarterback Brett Favre carried the day for the Packers in their most recent matchup with the Oakland Raiders, an encounter which found them clashing in their mutual 1999 season opener (Sept. 12) in Lambeau Field.
Favre, with a rare tolerance for playing with pain, was operating with a badly sprained thumb on his right (passing) hand - as the packers took possession of the football - at their own 18 yard line - for the last time in the game, trailing, 24-21 with only 1:51 to play.
The then-29-year-old field general ignited the drive with 22-yard, first-down pass to running back Dorsey Levens. A short pass to flanker Antonio Freeman yielded 6 yards and a Levens sortie off right tackle produced 12 more yards and a second first-down at Oakland's 42-yard line, enhancing the faithful's hopes.
Favre then promptly spiked the fall with 55 seconds left, to conserve precious time.
He then found split end Bill Schroeder with a 12-yard pass for a first down at the Raiders' 31-yard line, following which Favre again spiked the ball to save time, with 39 seconds remaining.
After an incomplete pass intended for Levens, Favre again hit Schroeder, the 11-yard completion taking the Packers to the Oakland 20, after which Favre spiked the ball a third time, with now 21 seconds left.
Favre next found Corey Bradford open along the right sideline and the latter was pushed out of bounds at the Raiders' 1-yard line with 15 seconds left.
Favre then deftly completed the project, lofting a pinpoint pass to a lonely tight end, Jeff Thomason, in the end zone for the winning score.
It was the 14th game-winning comeback Favre had registered in his then seven-plus seasons as the Packers' resident quarterback.
It had been a largely uphill battle for the Packers throughout the afternoon. They led early, 7-3 at the end of the first quarter, but the Raiders were out front at halftime, 10-7, by 17-14 at the end of the third quarter, and 24-14 in the fourth quarter before the Packers launched their counterattack.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: The Packers continue to lead the National Football Conference in offense inside-the-20, according to the latest statistics released by the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Packers have had 45 possessions and posted a conference-leading 66.7 touchdown percentage, having harvested 247 points (30 touchdowns and 12 field goals) with those 45 possessions.
On the other side of the football, the Packers rank second in the NFC in defense inside-the-20. The opposition has had 41 possessions and scored 181 points (18 touchdowns and 18 field goals, equating to a 43.9 touchdown percentage).
Overall, the Packers rank 8th in the NFL on offense (third in rushing and 16th in passing) and 18th defensively (ninth against the run and 26th against the pass).
lndividually, Ahman Green ranks second in the NFC in both rushing (1,538 yards) and total yards from scrimmage (1,894), and paces the conference in non-kicker scoring with 102 points.
Green trails the New Orleans Saints' Deuce McAllister by a mere 4 yards in NFC rushing (1,542 to 1,538) and by 5 yards from scrimmage overall (1,989 to 1,894).
Green also leads the NFC in the production of first downs with 104 (86 rushing and 18 receiving) and in third-and-1 rushing with 8 "conversions" in 8 attempts, a 100 percent success rate.
Quarterback Brett Favre, fifth a week ago, is now fourth among NFC passers with an 86.3 rating, based upon 274 completions in 420 attempts for 2,846 yards a conference-leading 27 touchdowns, with 20 interceptions.
Favre also ranks seventh in both NFC fourth-quarter passing and third-down passing. He owns an 81.0 rating in the former, based upon 66 completions in 102 attempts for 651 yards and 7 touchdowns, with 6 interceptions, and a 64.9 rating in the latter, with 74 completions in 126 attempts for 801 yards and 9 TD, with 11 interceptions.
Defensively, cornerback Mike McKenzie and safety Darren Sharper are tied for sixth place - among a host of other NFC interceptors - with 4 apiece and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is ninth in quarterback sacks with 7.0.
Among the specialists, Ryan Longwell ranks fourth in NFC kick scoring with 102 points (42 of 42 PAT and 20 of 22 FG), Josh Bidwell is 6th among punters with a 41.7-yard average for 61 punts and Antonio Chatman is ninth in punt returns with a 7.8-yard average for 27 runbacks.