Coming off a mid-season bye intent upon shaking a two-game losing streak, the Green Bay Packers (3-4) invade the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome Sunday night to take on the 6-1 Minnesota Vikings, leaders of the NFC North Division.
Kickoff for the nationally televised contest (ESPN), a sellout (64,121), is set for 7:30 CST (Wisconsin time).
The Packers, hoping to make inroads upon the Vikings' 3-game lead in the division race, will be seeking their first Metrodome victory since 2000, when the Green and Gold prevailed 33-28, in Mike Sherman's first year as Green Bay's head coach.
They also will be striving to square the season series, Minnesota having posted a 30-25 win in their initial '03 meeting at Lambeau Field Sept. 7.
While the Packers were taking the weekend off, the Vikings were seeing their nine-game winning streak - dating back to the last three games of the '02 season - come to an end at the hands of the New York Giants, 29-17. Minnesota had been the last unbeaten team in the National Football Conference.
Ironically, the Vikings had launched their league-longest victory skein a week after losing to the Packers (26-22) in Lambeau Field last Dec. 8.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Mike Patrick will call the play-by-play for the ESPN telecast of Sunday night's game, with Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire providing the analysis and commentary, and Suzy Kolber reporting from the field. Jay Rothman produces and Chip Dean directs.
The game also will be broadcast over the 62-station Packers Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee handling the play-by-play and Larry McCarren delivering the analysis. The broadcast also will be available to Field Pass subscribers on www.packers.com.
Additionally, it will be aired nationally by Westwood One, with Dave Sims calling the play-by-play, Bob Trumpy providing the analysis and John Riggins reporting from the field. Howard Deneroff is the producer.
ESPN International will broadcast the game in three languages to over 180 countries, as well.
THE 'SUNDAY NIGHT' RECORD: The Packers, who made their first appearance on the series in 1990, have had a high degree of success on "Sunday Night Football." They have won nine of 11 games, including five in a row, and have not lost a Sunday night contest since 1995; their .818 winning percentage on Sunday night is the highest among all NFL teams since the series began in 1987.
The Sunday night record:
Dec. 2, 1990 - @ Minnesota 23, Packers 7
Dec. 13, 1992 - Packers 16 @ Houston 14
Oct. 10 1993 - @ Packers 30, Denver 27
Dec. 12 1993 - Packers 20 @ San Diego 13
Sept. 24, 1995 - Packers 24, @ Jacksonville 14
Dec. 10 1995 - @ Tampa Bay 13, Packers 10 (OT)
Nov. 24 1996 - Packers 24, @ St. Louis 9
Nov. 2, 1997 - @ Packers 20, Detroit 10
Oct. 10, 1999 - @ Packers 26, Tampa Bay 23
Dec. 3, 2000 - Packers 28, @ Chicago 6
Dec. 8, 2002 - @ Packers 26, Minnesota 22
THE SERIES: The mere record of the Packers' 42-year-old "relationship" with the Minnesota Vikings speaks volumes about the intensity of the rivalry between the Green and Gold and the Purple Gang, an animosity accentuated by the proximity of the participants.
They have collided 84 times since the series began in 1961, the year Minnesota came into the National Football League, and the Vikings will enter Sunday night's matchup with a modest, one-game advantage. The Purple have won 42 games, the Packers have won 41 and there has been one tie, a 10-10 standoff played at Lambeau Field in 1978.
If this were not sufficient evidence of how the principals feel about each other, the history of the series substantially underscores the depth of the rivalry. It has spawned six overtime games over the four-decade span - more than the Packers have played against any other NFL opponent. The Vikings have won four of them.
The most recent of the sudden death affairs occurred in 2000, Antonio Freeman's somewhat bizarre, 43-yard touchdown catch giving the Packers a 26-20 victory in OT.
Additionally, more than a third of their encounters to date - 31, specifically - have been decided by seven or fewer points, including six of the last nine.
In invading Minnesota Sunday night, the Packers will be attempting to reverse a "Twin Cities" trend, which has seen the Vikings win 9 of the last 11 meetings in the Minneapolis Metrodome, including a 31-21 decision in last year's Green Bay visit.
The Vikings had their longest series run under Hall of Fame Coach Bud Grant, having put together a seven-game winning skein in the mid-70s, sweeping the season series in 1975, '76 and '77 and winning their first meeting in 1978 before the rivals battled to a 10-10 overtime tie in that season's rematch, interrupting the streak.
THE COACHES: Michael Francis Sherman, in his fourth year at the controls, presided over more victories (33) in his first three seasons than any other head coach in the Packers' storied, 84-year history...more than team founder Curly Lambeau (14), more than Vince Lombardi (26) and more than Mike Holmgren (27).
In the process of so doing, Sherman also has entrenched himself in what has become a greatly expanded role (he attached 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 en route to a second straight playoff berth, earning Sherman Staples 'Coach of the Year' honors for the '02 season.
Taking on the additional duties with typically total commitment, and literally without missing a beat, he maneuvered the Packers to back-to-back 12-and-4 records in 2001 and 2001, the Green and Gold thus becoming the winningest team in the NFL over that two-year span (24-8).
The 12-4 marks have been exceeded by only four teams in the club's 82-year NFL existence and the 12-12 parlay was only the second such coupling (12 or more victories in successive years) in team annals. His current regular-season coaching record is 36-19.
En route, the 48-year-old Northborough, Mass., native, who has rivaled the accomplishments of the fabled Lombardi over a comparable span, compiling a 33-15-0 mark in his first three seasons (16-game campaigns) compared to Lombardi's 26-12-0 record over a similar stretch (two 12-game seasons and one 14-game campaign) while he served as the Packers' head coach and general manager (1959-61).
Sherman also equaled another Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season (2001) at the controls.
Along the way, Sherman also has made Lambeau Field a somewhat hostile place to visit. Since he established residence at 1265 Lombardi Avenue in 2000, the Green and Gold have forged an imposing 23-5 record in "Lambeau" under his leadership - the best regular season record in the NFL during that span, including the NFL'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 functioned as vice president, general manager and head coach in 1949 - Sherman brings multiple 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 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, the tireless New Englander launched his coaching career at Stamford, Conn., High School in 1978, following his graduation from Central Connecticut State University. 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.
Towering Mike Tice, the first person in team annals to play for and serve as head coach of the Vikings, is in his second season as Minnesota's head coach.
He has been associated with the team for more than a decade. He played tight end in 1992-93 and 1995, coached the tight ends in 1996 and the offensive line from 1997 through 2001, adding the title of assistant head coach in '01.
In his first season as head coach in 2001, Tice led the team to three straight victories to end the season on a high note. It was only the seventh time in the team's 42-year history that they had won at least their last three contests. Two of the last three wins helped knock the New Orleans Saints and the Miami Dolphins out of the playoffs. In the process, the Vikings became the first team in NFL history to win a game on a 2-point conversion (against New Orleans 32-31).
Statistically, Minnesota's defense ranked second in the NFL, trailing only the Super Bowl runner-up Oakland Raiders (6,237 to 6,192 yards). The '02 Vikings also led the league in rushing (2,507 yards) for the first time ever and set team records for rushing touchdowns (26), yards per carry (5.3) and first downs (350).
Tice has had only three losing seasons in his last 19 years of association with the NFL. And, in his seven-plus seasons as an assistant and head coach with Minnesota, the team has compiled a 71-48 record and has made the playoffs 5 times and the NFC Championship Game twice.
As a tight end, the 6-foot, 8-inch Tice caught 107 passes for 894 yards and 11 touchdowns over 14 NFL seasons, nine of them with the Seattle Seahawks. He earlier was a two-year starter at quarterback at the University of Maryland, completing 71 of 140 passes for 938 yards and 5 touchdowns.
THE LAST TIME: Repeatedly squandering opportunities in their regular-season inaugural against the Vikings (Sept. 7), the Packers found themselves trailing the Vikings 20-3 at halftime and, in the final accounting, it was too much for the Green and Gold to overcome.
Particularly because Minnesota's massive quarterback, Daunte Culpepper was clearly on his game and simultaneously making highly productive advantage of Randy Moss's exceptional talents.
Culpepper completed 10 of 21 passes for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns - without an interception - as the Vikings built up their substantial halftime lead with the aid of 6 catches for 87 yards by Moss, who closed out the afternoon with 9 receptions for 150 yards and one touchdown.
Brett Favre, meanwhile, was a victim of the variable football fates, seeing pass interceptions end his first two offensive opportunities, the latter leading to the first of three Minnesota field goals by Vikings rookie placekicker Aaron Elling.
The Green and Gold's fate was essentially determined in the first 20 minutes of the second half, however. Culpepper initiated what became the definitive process by presiding over a 7-play, 59-yard scoring drive on Minnesota's first possession of the second half, finishing off the march with a 13-yard strike to the elusive Moss in the right corner of the end zone.
The Packers, interrupting the visitors' offensive show, responded with a touchdown of their own on an 14-play, 78-yard drive capped by Ahman Green's 8-yard scoring run flanking his own left end, followed by a 2-point conversion, Favre to tight end Bubba Franks.
With Minnesota leading 27-11, the Vikings set about settling the issue. Culpepper put together an 11-play, 64-yard drive which Elling climaxed with a 34-yard field goal, padding the Vikings' lead to 30-11.
The Packers, with the indomitable Favre leading the late charge, rebounded with a pair of touchdowns - one on an 11-yard scoring run by Green and the second a 24-yard pass to wide receiver Javon Walker - that sliced the Minnesota lead to 30-24 with 1:55 remaining.
There was still "time" to win, but the bristling comeback ended when Ryan Longwelll's onside kick went out of bounds at the Green Bay 39-yard line and the Vikings proceeded to run out the clock.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: Despite a bye week off, running back Ahman Green continues to rank among the NFC leaders in a variety of statistical categories, according to the latest official figures released Tuesday by the Elias Sports Bureau.
Green leads NFC non-kickers in scoring with 60 points on 10 touchdowns (8 rushing and 2 receiving); ranks second in total yards from scrimmage (963), just 2 yards behind Deuce McAllister of New Orleans; third in rushing with 734 yards in 151 attempts, a 4.9-yard average; leads the conference in first downs with 58 (46 rushing and 12 receiving) and is tied for first place in third-and-one success with a "perfect" 5-for-5 conversion record.
Green also owns the NFC's second-most productive rushing performance of the season to date, a 176-yard effort against Chicago Sept. 29, and is tied for 14th place in NFC receiving with 30 catches.
Quarterback Brett Favre ranks fourth among conference passers with an 89.3 rating, based upon 151 completions in 224 attempts for 1,529 yards and 13 touchdowns (the latter total second in the NFC), with 9 interceptions.
Favre also stands seventh in third-down passing with a 76.8 rating, based upon 34 completions in 57 attempts for 342 yards and 5 TDs, with 4 interceptions, and 10th in fourth-quarter passing with a 66.9 mark, based upon 35 of 57 for 347 yards and 3 TD, with 4 interceptions.
Ryan Longwell, who has yet to miss an extra point or a field goal thus far in the '03 season, is eighth in kicker scoring with 48 points on 24 PAT and 8 field goals. Fellow specialist Josh Bidwell ranks ninth among conference punters with a 41.2-yard average for 26 punts.
The Packers' Antonio Chatman is ninth in both NFC punt and kickoff returns - with an 8.5-yard average for 12 returns in the former and a 22.7-yard average for 29 runbacks in the latter.
Running back Najeh Davenport owns the NFC's longest run from scrimmage of the season to date - his 76-yard scoring excursion against the St. Louis Rams Oct. 19.
Cornerback Al Harris and linebackers Na'il Diggs and Nick Barnett are among 19 players tied for seventh place in interceptions with 2 apiece.
As a team, the Packers are fifth on offense (fourth in rushing and 13th in passing) and 30th on defense (19th against the run and 29th against the pass).
The Packers also lead the NFC in "Inside-the-20" success, having scored touchdowns on 78.3 percent of such possessions (18 touchdowns in 23 possessions), and stand third in the conference in the production of first downs with 150 (54 rushing, 85 passing and 11 by penalty).