Perhaps the most bizarre preseason in team annals now history, the Green Bay Packers quickly turn full attention to a historic season inaugural against their regional rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, in "Reborn" Lambeau Field next Sunday (Sept. 7).
Kickoff for the Packers' 83rd National Football League campaign, a season-ticket sellout (72,515), is set for 12 noon, CDT, with a record crowd expected to sit in on the proceedings.
A three-year, $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field now complete, the stunning structure will be "rededicated" in halftime ceremonies, with former Packers players viewing the proceedings, among them Pro Hall of Famers Bart Starr, Willie Davis, Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor who will be on hand to join in the annual "homecoming" events for the old grads.
The Packers, the NFL's winningest team over the past two years (24-8), will be in quest of their seventh opening day victory in the last eight years. They out-dueled Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons in overtime in their '02 opener, prevailing 37-34.
The approaching opening day festivities should help the Green and Gold quickly forget a 2-3 preseason explosively punctuated by some of the most violent weather conditions they have ever encountered.
En route, they saw their opening, Hall of Fame Game against Kansas City Aug. 4 called in the third quarter because of an "electrical storm," their second game - at Cleveland Aug. 9 - imperiled by a power blackout the night before the contest' and last Thursday night's preseason finale, interrupted by a 2-hour, 33-minute suspension by another thunderous summer storm - this one over Lambeau Field - that made a 27-3 loss to the visiting Tennessee Titans even less palatable.
As far as can be determined, it is the first time in the history of Lambeau Field, opened in 1957, that a game has been suspended because of inclement weather.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Kenny Albert will handle the play-by-play and Brian Baldinger the analysis for the Fox Sports Network's telecast of the Packers' opener against the Vikings, with Drew Smith reporting from the sideline. Pete Macheska is the producer and Mike Frank directs.
The game also will be aired over the Packer Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee calling the play-by-play and Larry McCarren offering the commentary and analysis. The Network's broadcast also will be available on www.packers.com for NFL Field Pass subscribers.
THE SERIES: The Packers' rivalry with the Vikings, now in its fifth decade, is a glowing testament to the depth of "neighborhood" pride. The Green and Gold and the Purple Gang have squared off 83 times since Minnesota entered the NFL in 1961 and each team, poetically, has won 41 games.
The other contest, just as poetically, ended in a 10-10 overtime tie.
The history of the series eloquently affirms the competitive intensity inherent in the regional feud. It has triggered six overtime games along the way - more than the Packers have played against any other opponent - of which the Vikings have won four.
Appropriately, the first of them - played in Lambeau Field in 1978 - was the previously referenced 10-10 stalemate, which also happened to be the first regular-season overtime game in Packers history.
As further evidence that feelings run exceedingly high on both sides of the series, more than a third of the principals' 83 meetings - 31, to be specific - have been decided by seven or fewer points.
And, as a consequence - and in additional documentation - the average point differential in the series has been a mere 1.4 points per game over its 43-year history.
THE OPENING DAY RECORD: The Packers have had good fortune on opening day over their long and distinguished history. They enter Sunday's inaugural against the Vikings 13 games over .500 in their all-time opening day annals, having won 46, lost 33 and tied 3 of 82 previous openers.
Accustomed to success on opening day recently, they have won six of their last seven openers, the most recent last year's memorable baptismal, which saw the Green and Gold prevail, 37-34, in an overtime struggle with the Atlanta Falcons.
Prior to losing their 2000 opener to the New York Jets (20-16), the Packers had put together a four-game winning streak, launching that skein with a 34-3 victory at Tampa in 1996, then following with a 38-24 conquest of the Chicago Bears in 1997, their most recent Super Bowl year. They next defeated the Detroit Lions in 1998's kickoff, 38-19, and then came from behind in the final minute to edge the Oakland Raiders, 28-24, in their 1999 inaugural.
The Packers' opening day opponents, the Vikings, have won 23 and lost 18 on opening day over their history, with one tie.
OPENING MONTH NOT BAD, EITHER: Building upon their consistent opening day success, the Packers also have fashioned one of the NFL's best "opening month" records over the past decade (1993-2002). They come into the '03 season tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the league's second-best opening month record, 28-12, for the past 10 years.
The Miami Dolphins are the overall leaders for that span with a 31-9 mark.
HAPPY HOME: The Packers have been consistently anti-social in Lambeau Field over the past seven seasons, having compiled an impressive 49-7 regular-season record at home over that span, including the NFL's only perfect home record of the '02 season, 8-0.
The Green and Gold also will be carrying an 11-game, regular-season winning streak into Sunday's opener.
The Packers, however, did lose a postseason game at home for the first time in team annals following the '02 season, falling to the Atlanta Falcons, 27-7, in a Wild Card playoff (Jan. 4).
THE NFL'S BEST, LAST 10: The Packers are the NFL's winningest franchise over the past 10 years. In addition to winning 107 regular-season games (compared to 53 losses), the Green and Gold have posted six 10-win seasons, four NFC Central/NFC North titles, and a Super Bowl championship in the last decade.
THE HEAD COACHES: Thoroughgoing Michael Francis Sherman, currently entering his fourth year as the 13th head coach in Packers annals, has already entrenched himself among the National Football League's coaching elite.
-Under his positive and painstaking direction, the Packers have been the winningest team in the National Football League over the past two seasons, 24-8, with back-to-back 12-4 regular-season records in 2001 and 2002 en route to consecutive playoff berths - and with last season climaxed by the team's first division championship since 1997.
-Sherman's imposing 21-3 home-field record - he has made Lambeau Field an uncomfortable place to visit for NFL rivals - also is the league's best over the past three years.
-Additionally, his Green and Gold posted the league's only perfect home record (8-0) in 2002; and
-They enter the 2003 season with an 11-game regular-season winning streak in Lambeau Field.
In the prosperous process, Sherman has posted more victories in his first three seasons (33) than any of his Packers predecessors - including team founder Curly Lambeau (14) and Vince Lombardi (26).
And his 2001-2002 Packers became only the second team in the organization's prestigious history to win 12 (or more) games in back-to-back seasons. The 12-4 marks also have been exceeded by only four teams in the club's 82-year NFL history.
In so doing, the impeccably prepared New Englander became only the fourth of the 13 head coaches in team history to compile a winning record, joining Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
Sherman achieved the singular successes of the past two seasons while establishing himself in a substantially expanded role, having added the duties of executive vice president and general manager to his résumé after one season as head coach, which he shouldered with typically total commitment, and literally without missing a step.
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 impressive credentials to his sweeping 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 as tight ends coach 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 48-year-old 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 Texas A&M and UCLA. He launched his NFL coaching career with the Packers in 1997, when he signed on as tight ends/assistant offensive line coach under Holmgren.
The Vikings' towering Mike Tice, in his second full season as Minnesota's head coach, led his team to victory in their final three games of the '02 season to finish out his initial campaign with a 6-10 record.
Tice, however, has had a lengthy association with the Vikings, having been with the team since 1992, playing tight end in 1992-93 and again in 1995, coaching tight ends in 1996 and the offensive line from 1997-2001.
Tice added the title of assistant head coach for the 2001 season and was made interim head coach for the Vikings' last regular season game of the 2001 season against Baltimore.
The former University of Maryland quarterback, who takes a 6-11 overall record into the '03 season, is the first Viking "alumnus" to hold the title of the franchise's head coach. In five prior seasons coaching the offensive line, Tice guided five different players - Matt Birk, Jeff Christy, Randall McDaniel, Todd Steussie and Korey Stringer - to Pro Bowl appearances. In 1998, the offensive line paved the way for numerous NFL and Vikings records, including a league record for points scored in a season (556) and set Vikings records for total yards (6,264) and fewest sacks allowed in a 16-game season (25).
Over his 14-year NFL playing career, Tice caught 107 passes for 894 yards and 11 touchdowns and blocked for running backs who rushed for 1,000 yards in a season five times.
SHERMAN AS A 'STARTER:' The Packers' Mike Sherman owns a 2-1, opening day won-lost record. After seeing his team lose to the New York Jets in his very first inaugural as head coach in 2000, 20-16, Sherman has won two in a row, the Packers defeating the Detroit Lions 28-6 in their 2001 opener and the Atlanta Falcons, 37-34 in overtime in last year's debut.
THE LAST TIME(S): The Packers' customary home-and-home encounters with the Vikings in 2002 presented familiar - if hardly satisfying - scenarios for those involved. The Vikings, getting off to a fast start in their deafening Minneapolis Metrodome, rode a 14-0 first quarter lead to a 31-21 victory in their first meeting of the season.
And the Packers, surging from behind on the wings of 13-point final period, were able to even the score, pulling out a 26-22 victory in their rematch on an exceedingly brisk December evening.
In their first encounter, Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper threw two touchdown passes and ran for another to trigger the Vikings' victory, complementing a Purple defense which intercepted the Packers' Brett Favre three times.
Michael Bennett's 62-yard run just before the 2-minute warning in the fourth quarter, set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Moe Williams and put the game out of reach.
It was the ninth loss in their last 11 games at the Metrodome for the Packers, who thus missed out on a chance to become the earliest team to clinch a division title in a 16-game season.
Down by two scores in the third quarter, Favre threw a 24-yard pass to Tyrone Davis on fourth-and-1. After Lance Johnstone's third-down roughing-the-passer penalty, Favre found Bubba Franks with a 1-yard TD pass that cut the lead to 21-14.
Minnesota's Greg Biekert intercepted Favre twice, but both time Culpepper gave Green Bay the ball right back. Bieker returned his second pick to the Green Bay 5-yard line, but Culpepper fumbled the snap on third-and-goal at the 1 and Marques Anderson recovered.
Early in the fourth quarter, Favre completed a third-and-10 pass to Donald Driver, whose catch and run turned into an 84-yard TD that tied the game at 21. But Gary Anderson's 32-yard field goal with 7:16 left put the Vikings up 24-21, and then their defense forced Favre into two straight three-and-outs before Bennett's run put the game away.
In the December rematch, Tony Fisher's 14-yard touchdown run with 1:06 left gave Green Bay a 26-22 victory over the Vikings. Darren Sharper picked off Culpepper's desperation pass as time expired and returned the ball 66 yards before finally going down at the Minnesota 16.
The victory enabled the Packers (10-3) to keep pace with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay for home field in the NFC playoffs.
By 30 days, it was the latest in the year (Dec. 3) that the league had ever scheduled a night game in Green Bay, and the temperature at kickoff was 11 degrees.
The Packers never led until Fisher's game-winning touchdown TD on first-and-10 from the 14. Green Bay took over the football at its own 15 with 4:32 left. An interception by Jack Brewer with 2:12 remaining was negated by Corey Chavous' pass interference on Donald Driver, giving Green Bay the ball at Minnesota's 25. After Favre made a first down with an 8-yard scramble on third-and-7, Fisher scored on the next play.
Fisher, a rookie free agent from Notre Dame who was making his first career start in place of Ahman Green (knee), finished with a career-high 96 yards on 25 carries. Wideout Robert Ferguson also set career highs with six receptions for 105 yards and the first two-touchdown game of his career.
THE INJURY REPORT: Wide receiver Carl Ford suffered a twisted right knee late in the first quarter of the Titans game and did not return to action. He has been placed on injured reserve and thus will be lost for the '03 season.
The Packers' medical staff is hopeful that guard Marco Rivera (knee) and safety Darren Sharper (groin), both of whom missed the preseason finale again Tennessee, will be able to play in Sunday's opener against the Vikings.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: Although he was held out of the Packers' finale against Tennessee, running back Ahman Green closed out the preseason as the fourth-ranking rusher in the National Football Conference with 142 yards in 26 attempts, a 5.5-yard average. He also tied for ninth place in total yards from scrimmage with 174, including 32 receiving.
Placekicker Ryan Longwell tied with Chicago's Paul Edinger for sixth place in kicker scoring with 21 points.
Wide receiver Javon Walker tied for 10th in receiving yards with 142, averaging 17.8 yards for 8 catches.
Cornerback Al Harris tied for the conference lead in interceptions with 2 and Marcus Wilkins tied for sack honors with 3.0.
Punter Josh Bidwell ranked seventh with a 43.8-yard average for 21 punts and Antonio Chatman finished 11th in kickoff returns with a 25.0-yard average for 12 runbacks.
As a team, the Packers ranked 28th on offense (28th in rushing and 20th in passing) and 21st on defense (fourth against the run and 29th against the pass).