What, pray tell, were the odds?
It was a most unlikely scenario - amidst a myriad of possibilities...as Sunday began.
Yet, through the Green Bay Packers' persistent efforts - and the welcome cooperation of others - the best of all possible "scripts" came to storybook fruition late in the day.
The Green and Gold thus not only find themselves in the NFL playoffs, for the third year in a row, but as repeating champions of the NFC North Division and hosting a Wild Card game in Lambeau Field next Sunday - against the Seattle Seahawks.
And, poetically enough, a Seahawks team coached by Mike Holmgren, the man who earlier led the Packers to a pair of Super Bowl appearances in 1996 and 1997 before departing 1265 Lombardi Avenue to take over the Seattle franchise following the 1998 season.
Kickoff for the contest, a sellout (72,515), is set for 12 noon, CST.
The Packers, who at one point on the final day of the regular season faced the possibility of elimination even with a victory, made sure they did their part by closing out the '03 campaign with a 31-3 home victory over the Denver Broncos...their fourth straight win and their seventh in their last nine games.
And there was a complementary - and necessary - contribution on the part of the Cardinals, whose 18-17, final-play upset of Minnesota abruptly ended the Vikings' hopes of a division title that would have been in their grasp with a victory in Arizona.
"The fans were overwhelming," quarterback Brett Favre later said of the faithful's highly emotional in-stadium response as the they became aware of the Vikings' loss and what it meant to and for the Green and Gold.
Favre, whose father died Dec. 21, also suggested there might be special intercession in behalf of the Green and Gold from "above," as an explanation for Sunday's felicitous events.
"I felt like he was watching," Brett said, adding, "Something's going on here."
GREEN MAKES HISTORY: Running back Ahman Green punctuated the Packers' title-winning victory in dramatic fashion. He not only launched the longest run from scrimmage in Packers history, a 98-yard excursion in the fourth quarter, but also became the first 200-yard rusher in team annals (218 yards in 20 attempts).
Green also scored two touchdowns to establish a new Green Bay single-season record with 20. Jim Taylor set the previous mark with 19 in 1962.
In addition to his record-breaking exploits, Green also became the first Packer to lead the National Football Conference in rushing since John Brockington in 1973.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Joe Buck will call the play-by-play for Sunday's showdown, with Cris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman providing the analysis and Pam Oliver reporting from the sideline. Richie Zyontz is the producer and Artie Kempner directs.
The game also will be aired over the 62-station Packers Radio Network (Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren). The radio broadcast also will be available on www.packers.com for NFL Field Pass subscribers.
Additionally, the game will be broadcast nationally by Westwood One/CBS Radio Sports, with Bob Papa delivering the play-by-play, Jack Ham providing the analysis and Kellen Winslow reporting from the field.
The game also will be broadcast in Spanish.
THE PLAYOFF RECORD: The Packers, in the postseason for the third consecutive year and the ninth time in the last 11 years, have had marked success in the playoffs.
They have made 35 playoff appearances over the span of nearly seven decades and own an imposing 23-12 record, equating to the highest winning percentage in NFL postseason competition, .657, based upon a minimum of 15 games.
The Baltimore Ravens have an .833 winning percentage, but it is based upon six postseason appearances and a 5-1 record.
The Dallas Cowboys, with a 32-21 record in 53 playoff appearances, rank third all-time with a .604 winning percentage.
The Packers, historically grudging hosts, are the most successful home team in the postseason annals of the NFL. They have won 13 of 14 playoff games - 12 in Green Bay and 2 in Milwaukee - their lone loss having come in last January's Wild Card Playoff against Atlanta, won by the Falcons 27-7.
It was the Packers' first ever playoff loss in Lambeau Field.
IT'S THE FIRST TIME: Although the Packers have made 35 appearances in the NFL playoffs, they will be facing the Seattle Seahawks for the first time in the postseason.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, will be making their first playoff appearance since the 1999 season, when they were shaded by the Miami Dolphins in a Wild Card playoff during Mike Holmgren's first season as their head coach.
The Seahawks own a 3-and-5 record for their eight previous postseason ventures.
THE HEAD COACHES: Mike Sherman, a study in organization, consistency and preparedness, continues to make Packers history.
Earlier this season, the meticulous New Englander became the first head coach in Packers annals to win 40 games in his first four seasons at the Green and Gold's controls, thus surpassing the storied Vince Lombardi, who weighed in with 39 wins in his first four years (39-13-0) and Mike Holmgren, who posted 38 in his first four seasons (38-26-0).
Over the weekend, he built upon that considerable achievement by leading the Packers into the playoffs for the third consecutive year. He thus joined Lombardi, who was the first Green Bay head coach to do so - and did it twice - leading the Packers into the NFL championship game in 1960-61-62 and again in 1965-66-67, and Holmgren, who maneuvered the Packers into the postseason in 1993-98, escorting them into the Super Bowl in '96 and '97.
The 49-year-old Massachusetts native heads into this weekend's playoff assignment with an imposing 43-21 regular-season record, following a 9-7 mark in 2000, his first season as the Packers' head coach, back-to-back 12-4 records in 2002 and 2002, and 10-6 in the season just completed.
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 four consecutive winning seasons and - in 2002 - to its first division championship since 1997 and a second straight playoff berth. The latter accomplishments earned Sherman Staples 'NFL Coach of the Year' honors.
Team founder Curly Lambeau, Lombardi and Holmgren are the only other head coaches to post four consecutive winning seasons in Green Bay.
After shouldering the additional duties, with typically total commitment and literally without missing a beat - Sherman directed the Packers to successive 12-and-4 records, the Green and Gold thus becoming the winningest team in the NFL over that two-year span (24-8-0).
Moreover, the 12-4 marks have been exceeded by only four teams in the club's 83-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 equaled a Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season.
Along the way, he 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 26-6 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 in the Packers organization - since Lambeau served as 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 a 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 closing out 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 regarded programs as Texas A&M and UCLA.
Mike Holmgren, who led the Packers to seven consecutive winning seasons and six playoff appearances during a highly successful Green Bay tenure, left Titletown following the 1998 season to become executive vice president, general manager and head coach of the Seahawks.
In the interim, he has compiled a 41-39-0 won-lost record in Seattle and, with a Wild Card berth this season, has twice escorted the Seahawks into the NFL playoffs.
While in Green Bay (1992-98), Holmgren - by winning at least one game in five consecutive postseasons - joined John Madden (1973-77) as the only coaches in league history to accomplish that feat.
In 18 NFL seasons (1999-2003 head coach Seattle, 1992-98 head coach Green Bay, 1986-1991 assistant coach San Francisco) Holmgren's teams have compiled a 187-99-1 record, posted double-digit win totals 11 times, made the postseason 13 times, won three Super Bowls (XIII, XIV and XXXI), and reached another (XXXII). Career record as a head coach: 125-82.
In 1998, while still in the Green Bay area, he was honored with a street named for him...Holmgren Way, in suburban Ashwaubenon.
A quarterback at Southern California as a collegian (1966-69), the San Francisco native was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the eighth round of the 1970 draft while earning his degree in business finance.
Holmgren subsequently served as an assistant coach at San Francisco State (1981) and Brigham Young (1982-85).
THE LAST TIME: The optimum efficiency of the Packers' offense, with quarterback Brett Favre in classic form, was the "story" of the Green and Gold's Oct. 5 meeting with the Seahawks in Lambeau Field.
To underscore the impressive process, Josh Bidwell closed out the game's opening series with a 25-yard punt and did not find it necessary to punt again until just 8 minutes remained in the fourth quarter and the situation was well in hand.
In the productive interim, the highly effective Favre guided the Packers to consecutive touchdowns on their next five possessions, a feat seldom seen on any football field.
The "show" was launched by a turnover, defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt forcing a Shaun Alexander fumble and Marques Anderson recovering at the Seattle 49-yard line. Favre had the Packers in the end zone in 1 minute, 55 seconds and 5 plays, the fifth a 34-yard collaboration with wide receiver Donald Driver, who pulled in Favre's pass at the 3-yard line and wrestling away from a Seahawk defender, wheeled into the end zone. Ryan Longwell added the first of five conversions.
The Seahawks promptly retaliated with a scoring drive of their own, moving 71 yards in 9 plays to a tying touchdown. Josh Brown's PAT made it 7-7, but it was a brief interruption.
The Packers, exhibiting a little more patience, embarked on a 13-play push which consumed 7 minutes and 18 seconds and was climaxed by Ahman Green's 1-yard burst over left guard into the end zone early in the second quarter - a development which sent the Packers ahead to stay.
Seattle again responded, launching a 16-play, 80-yard drive which carried the Seahawks to the Green Bay 10-yard line before defender Bhawoh Jue broke up a Matt Hasselbeck pass intended for wideout Darrell Jackson, forcing the visitors to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Brown, trimming the Packers' lead to 14-10.
The Packers were quickly back at it, sweeping 68 yards in 9 plays to score, Green going the final 3 yards off right tackle to complete the project and Longwell's conversion making it 21-10, Green Bay, with only 36 seconds left in the first half.
The Seahawks were still feisty and hopeful, however, and moved to the Green Bay 32 in 4 plays after the kickoff. Hasselbeck was sacked for a 7-yard-loss on third down, apparently moving Seattle out of field goal range, but Holmgren elected to go for a field goal despite the odds. Brown "validated" the decision, hitting from 58 yards, his boot easily clearing the crossbar.
The Packers then put it away in the third quarter, scoring on their first two possessions while the defense, implementing some halftime adjustments, went on to hold the Seahawks scoreless over the last 30 minutes.
After the defense required Seattle to go three-and-out following the second half kickoff, Favre guided the Packers to a fourth consecutive touchdown, Tony Fisher completing the 8-play, 53-yard drive with an 11-yard dash around left end out of the shotgun.
The Seahawks mounted yet another drive, moving to the Green Bay 35 before Packers safety Darren Sharper waylaid a Hasselbeck pass, intended for Jackson, and returned it 19 yards to the Green Bay 44.
Favre promptly parlayed the opportunity into the Packers' final score of the afternoon, escorting the Green and Gold 56 yards in 9 plays and completing the process by hitting fullback William Henderson with a 2-yard pass for the touchdown. Longwell's fifth conversion wrapped up the day's scoring.
Favre closed out a memorable performance with a 122.9 quarterback rating, his highest of the season to that point, completing 19 of 25 passes for 185 yards and 2 touchdowns - without an interception - while distributing the football among eight different receivers.
The explosive Green, meanwhile, keyed a 159-yard rushing performance, gaining 118 yards in 27 attempts, a 4.4-yard average, and scoring 2 touchdowns.
Nick Barnett, the team's tackle leader since the season's start, led the defensive charge with 11 stops, 9 of them unassisted.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: Closing out a season to remember with a record-breaking flourish, Ahman Green literally swept the honors board in the National Football Conference, statistically speaking.
Highlighting his regular-season finale with a club record 218 yards rushing, including a team-record 98-yard run from scrimmage, Green finished his personal year as:
- The NFC leader in rushing with 1,883 yards
- The NFC leader in most yards from scrimmage, 2,250 (1,883 rushing and 367 receiving)
- The NFC leader in non-kicker scoring with 120 points
- The NFC leader in first downs with 115 (96 rushing, 19 receiving)
- The NFC leader in third-and-one rushing with a 100-percent success rate (8 "conversions" in 8 attempts)
Green's 218-yard performance Sunday also was the NFC's best of the season.
Quarterback Brett Favre, leading the NFL in touchdown passes for a record-tying fourth time, ended the season as the NFC's second-ranking passer with a 90.4 rating, based upon 308 completions in 471 attempts for 3,361 yards and 32 touchdowns, with 21 interceptions.
Favre also ranked seventh in both fourth-quarter passing and third-down passing, with an 82.5 rating in the former on 69 completions in 106 attempts for 707 yards and 7 touchdowns, with 6 interceptions, and a 72.6 rating in the latter, on 88 completions in 145 attempts for 1,073 yards and 9 TDs, with 11 interceptions.
Placekicker Ryan Longwell finished third in NFC kicker scoring with 120 points (51 of 51 PAT and 23 field goals in 26 attempts, an .885 percentage).
Fellow specialist Josh Bidwell closed out the season as the NFC's sixth-ranking punter with a 41.7-yard average for 69 punts. He also was sixth in net average (35.1).
Safety Darren Sharper tied for sixth in interceptions with 5 "picks" and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila for sixth in quarterback sacks with 10.0, Mike McKenzie tying for 10th in interceptions with 4.
Antonio Chatman finished ninth among NFC punt returners with an 8.4-yard average for 33 runbacks and 11th in kickoff returns with a 22.3-yard average for 36 returns.
Riding a potent running game down the stretch, the Packers ranked fourth in the NFL overall on offense (third in rushing and 16th in passing).
Additionally, they led the NFC in offense inside the 20 with a 65.4 touchdown percentage (34 TDs on 52 possessions).
The Packers also led the conference in production on first-down plays with an average gain of 6.07 yards.
Defensively, they finished 17th (10th against the run and 23rd against the pass).
Also, minus-12 a month ago, the Green and Gold closed out the season with a '0' reading in the takeaway-giveaway table, a major turnabout. They posted 32 takeaways (21 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries) and also finished with 32 giveaways (21 opponent interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries).