Having formally acquired their first division championship since 1997 and thus been assured of postseason participation for the second year in a row, the Green Bay Packers (9-3) now zero in on their next major goal - assuring themselves of home field advantage in the National Football League playoffs that lie ahead.
This consuming quest begins Sunday night (Dec. 8) when they entertain their NFC North Division rivals from the land of sky blue waters, the Minnesota Vikings, in a prime time matchup on national cable (ESPN).
Kickoff for the contest, a customary season ticket-sellout (66,110), is set for 7:30, CST (Wisconsin time).
The Green and Gold are well aware that the best way of dealing with the home-field issue is to win out in their final four games - against the Vikings, at San Francisco Dec. 15, in Lambeau Field against Buffalo Dec. 22 and at the New York Jets Dec. 29.
To be sure, they should need no special motivation against the Vikings, the Purple Gang having spoiled their first meeting of the season by pulling off a 31-21 victory at the Minneapolis Metrodome Nov. 17.
Over the weekend, the Packers certified themselves for the playoffs with a 30-20, come-from-behind triumph over their venerable enemies, the Chicago Bears, mounting a 24-point second half to expunge a 14-6 Bears halftime lead and end a two-game losing streak.
It was their 75th win over the Monsters of the Midway in the 82-year-history of professional football's most celebrated rivalry. The Bears have won 83 of the 164 regular season meetings and there have been 6 ties.
The Packers will be taking the league's only perfect home record into Sunday night's game against Minnesota - one achieved the hard way. They have come from behind in five of their six "Lambeau" victories to date.
THE EARLIEST 'CLINCH:' The Packers made team history in Sunday's process with the earliest clinching of a division title (with four games to play) since the advent of the NFL's 16-game regular season schedule in 1978. It is the Packers' fourth division crown under the 16-game format following a "trifecta" in 1995-1996-1997 when they swept to three consecutive championships in the former NFC Central Division.
The Packers' earliest previous clinching(s) came in the super Bowl years of 1996 and 1997 when they sealed back-to-back title acquisitions with two games remaining to play in each case. (Note: the Packers clinched with three games to play in the 14-game, 1967 season.)
With the title, the Packers assured themselves of a playoff berth for the eighth time in a 10-year span, the league's best postseason record over that period. Miami, Minnesota and San Francisco each have had seven playoff berths over that period. The Packers previously qualified for postseason play for six consecutive years (1993-98), fell short in 1999-2000 and now have returned to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons (2001-02).
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Mike Patrick will voice the play-by-play of Sunday night's game against the Vikings and Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire will provide the commentary and analysis, with Suzy Kolber reporting from the field. Jay Rothman is the producer and Chip Dean directs.
Wayne Larrivee will call the play-by-play for the Packer Radio Network broadcast and Larry McCarren will handle the commentary and analysis. The broadcast also will be available on the internet via www.packers.com.
Additionally, the game will be broadcast nationally over Westwood One/CBS Radio, with Joel Meyers, Bob Trumpy and Rick Walker reporting, as well as by ESPN International and ESPN Deportes, the Spanish television arm of ESPN, with Eduardo Varela calling the play-by-play and Fuad Reveiz providing the analysis. Jones MediaAmerica Radio Network will broadcast the game on Spanish national radio with Alvaro Martin, Danny Marulanda and Rafael Hernández Brito handling the call.
THE SUNDAY NIGHT 'STORY:' The Packers have had exemplary success on "Sunday Night Football." The Green and Gold, who will be making their eleventh such appearance, have compiled an 8-and-2 record in the Sabbath's prime time, dating back to their "debut" in 1990 - including an unblemished 5-0 mark in Lambeau Field.
They will be carrying a four-game Sunday night winning streak into next weekend's contest against the Vikings, having launched the skein on Nov. 24, 1996, en route to victory in Super Bowl XXXI, with a 24-9 win over the St. Louis Rams. They followed with a 20-10 victory over the Detroit Lions on Nov. 2, 1997, a 26-23 conquest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 10, 1998, and a 28-6 win over the Chicago Bears on Dec. 3, 2000.
The visiting Vikings also have had good fortune on Sunday night. They have won 12 and lost 7 of 19 such prime time appearances, including 6 of their last 8.
Sunday night's contest against the Vikings will mark the latest date the NFL has ever scheduled a prime-time game in Wisconsin. The previous "latest" occurred on Nov. 9, 1970, when the Packers were shaded by the Baltimore Colts at Milwaukee County Stadium, 13-10.
WARM FOR DECEMBER: With Sunday's victory, the Packers now own a 32-10 record (.762) at home for the month of December over the past 11 years (1992-2002), the best in the league. San Francisco (27-14, .659) is second over that span.
The Packers also own the league's best home record for December over the same period (19-2, .905). Kansas City (16-2, .889) is next up.
Meanwhile, GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman remains undefeated at home in the final month of the year. He is now 6-and-0 in Lambeau Field December games since taking over as head coach in 2000.
Appropriately, on Dec. 1, snow flurries arrived right on schedule for Sunday's game, in company with a wind chill of 13 degrees.
THE SERIES: The Packers and Vikings, opponents for more than 40 years, are locked in one of the most tightly contested rivalries in National Football League history.
After those four decades, in fact, they could hardly be closer. The record shows them to be just one game apart going into their 83rd meeting next Sunday night. The edge belongs to the visiting Vikings, who have won 41 of those previous 81 encounters, to the Packers' 40 - with the Vikings' 41st success having come in the teams' first '02 meeting - in the Minneapolis Metrodome Nov. 17, the Purple Gang emerging with a 31-21 win. There also has been one tie.
The anatomy of the series attests to the competitive intensity inherent in this regional feud. It has, for example, spawned six overtime games along the way, of which the Vikings have won four.
Fittingly, the first of them - played in Lambeau Field in 1978 - ended in a 10-10 tie. It was the first regular-season overtime game in Packers history.
In addition, considerably better than a third of the rivals' 82 meetings - 30, to be precise - have been decided by seven or fewer points.
And, if that doesn't sufficiently document the claw-and-scratch nature of the rivalry, the average point differential in the 82-game series definitely does. It has been a mere 1.4 points per game over the 43-year history of the series.
THE HEAD COACHES: Unfailingly consistent and meticulously prepared, Mike Sherman has set and maintained lofty standards of success in his three-year tenure as the 13th head coach in the Packers' storied history.
He has continuously approximated or paralleled the won-lost accomplishments of the fabled Vince Lombardi's 1959-62 pace, having forged a 30-14 record in his first 44 regular season games, compared to the latter's 32-12 mark at the same stage of his Green Bay career.
At least as impressive, in the context of team history, Sherman has become only the fourth of the 13 head coaches in the team's 82-year annals to mount a winning career record. In so doing, he has joined an exclusive fraternity, one whose membership additionally includes only team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
En route, the tireless New Englander also has matched another major Lombardi achievement by leading the Packers into the NFL playoffs in only his second season as head coach. Moreover, he also has gone one up on him by escorting the Packers to victory in his first postseason game. The latter is an accomplishment that eluded Lombardi, who lost his initial playoff game as Green Bay's field leader.
Just a year earlier, when a head coach for the first time at any level, Sherman had debuted auspiciously by leading the Packers to a 9-7 record, a season impressively culminated by a sweep of Green Bay's four NFC Central Division rivals (Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and Tampa Bay), a rare achievement.
Then despite assuming the additional and formidable responsibilities of executive vice president and general manager following Ron Wolf's unexpected retirement, he next guided the Packers to an impressive 12-4 record in 2001, a single-season victory total exceeded by only three teams in the club's 82-year annals.
Sherman then proceeded to enhance that significant success by escorting 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 Packers history to assume his multiple responsibilities - since Lambeau last operated in those capacities in 1949 - Sherman brings impressive credentials to his tri-cornered role. They include a Super Bowl following the 1997 season, during which he was a member of the Mike Holmgren staff that led the Packers into SB XXXII against the Denver Broncos at San Diego.
The latter was the first of three consecutive years in the playoffs for the 47-year-old Central Connecticut State University alumnus, who returned to the postseason with the Packers in 1998 and as the offensive coordinator on Holmgren's staff in 1999.
Now in his 25th year in the coaching profession, Sherman 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 regarded programs as Texas A&M and UCLA.
Monolithic Mike Tice, who succeeded Dennis Green last January, is only the sixth head coach in the Vikings' 42-year history. He had spent three years as a Vikings player and six more as an assistant coach before being named head coach.
A veteran of 14 NFL playing seasons, Tice played tight end for Minnesota (1992-93 and 1995), then coached the team's tight ends in 1996 and the offensive line from 1997 to 2001 before being elevated to his current position Jan. 20, 2002.
The former University of Maryland athlete, who had been promoted to assistant head coach prior to the 2001 season, subsequently was named the interim head for the Vikings' last regular season game of the '01 season.
The first Vikings alumnus to hold the title of the franchise's head coach, Tice guided five different players - Matt Birk, Jeff Christy, Randall McDaniel, Todd Steussie and Korey Stringer - to 10 Pro Bowl appearances during five seasons of coaching the Minnesota offensive line.
In that process, the offensive line paved the way for numerous NFL and Vikings records in 1998 - 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).
A quarterback at Maryland as a collegian (1977-80), Tice went on to play 10 NFL seasons for the Seattle Seahawks (1981-88, 1990-91) and one season with the Washington Redskins (1989) before joining the Vikings for the last three playing seasons of his career (1992-92 and 1995).
THE LAST TIME: The Packers have good reason to remember their most recent brush with the Vikings. Not only because it was just 2-1/2weeks ago but because of the traumatic experience it became during the course of the visit. The Purple Gang, abruptly stepping out a 14-0 lead with the aid of a no-huddle offense, went on to forge a 31-21victory in the Minneapolis Metrodome, a venue that seldom has been overly kind to the Green and Gold.
The Vikings, launching a big-play attack in the early going, mounted a two-touchdown lead in the first eight minutes of the game - tallying on 24- and 18-yard strikes from quarterback Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss and D'Wayne Bates, respectively.
Re-gathering themselves, the Packers managed to close to 14-7 at halftime and, ultimately, to forge a 21-21 deadlock early in the fourth quarter.
It was at that promising stage, however, that the Vikings took over the game, proceeding to score the last 10 points in the contest and walk away with their 41st win the in the series.
Ironically, it was former Wisconsin Badger standout Michael Bennett who pulled the proverbial rug from under the Packers. With the Vikings holding on to a slim, 24-21 lead, he broke away on a 62-yard excursion in the closing minutes, sprinting all the way to the Green Bay 3-yard line before being caught from behind by the Packers' Marques Anderson. Fellow Vikings running back Moe Williams scored the game's final touchdown two plays later, with only 1:56 remaining, effectively settling the issue.
A largely offensive show; the neighborhood rivals amassed nearly 800 yards of offense between them. The Vikings frisked the Packers for 425 yards, the most allowed by Green Bay's defense this season, while the Packers closed out with 367.
Quarterback Brett Favre passed for 296 yards and two touchdowns on 24 completions in 43 attempts, with 3 interceptions.
Favre's production included a spectacular, 84-yard collaboration with split end Donald Driver, who pulled in the football along the left sidelines early in the fourth quarter, broke into the open near midfield and raced the distance.
NOTABLE PACKERS-VIKINGS CONNECTIONS:
NFL ties: Vikings receivers coach Charlie Baggett (receivers coach, 1999) and defensive backs coach Chuck Knox Jr. (defensive assistant/quality control, 1999) were on previous Green Bay staffs...The Vikings drafted Gilbert Brown in the third round of the '93 draft, then waived him in training camp...Defensive lineman Darrius Holland spent all or parts of three seasons (1995-97) in Green Bay...Meanwhile, four individuals in the Packers organization have previously worked or played for the Vikings: Receivers coach Ray Sherman (quarterbacks coach, 1995-97 and O-coordinator, 1999); director of research and development Mike Eayrs (similar capacity, 1985-99); college scout Lee Gissendaner (player, 1996); and PR director Jeff Blumb (PR intern 1985 in Bud Grant's return season)...Minnesota tight end Byron Chamberlain, Packers linebacker Nate Wayne, and Green Bay D-coordinator Ed Donatell were in Denver during the late 1990s.
College teammates: Randy Moss (Vikings) and Billy Lyon (Packers) at Marshall...Bryant McKinnie (Vikings) and Bubba Franks (Packers) at Miami (Fla.)...Brian Russell (Vikings) and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (Packers) at San Diego State.
Other connections: Jay Hayes, Vikings special teams coach, tutored Ryan Longwell as a punter and placekicker at Cal in 1994...Minnesota's head trainer Chuck Barta and Packers assistant trainer Kurt Fielding were classmates at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse...Vikings running back Michael Bennett rushed for 1,681 yards in his only season as a Wisconsin starter, 2000, second in Badger history; a former Milwaukee Tech High School star, Bennett's uncle is former Packer Tony Bennett...The Vikings' Nick Davis also played at Wisconsin...Dean Dalton, Minnesota's running backs coach, was a coach at the University of Wisconsin (1986-87)...John Schneider, Green Bay's personnel analyst to the general manager, attended St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minn.
THE ROSTER: Wide receiver/kick returner J.J. Moses has been re-signed to the Packers' practice squad, GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman has announced. The 5-6, 173-pound Moses, a former Iowa State athlete, previously had been a member of the practice squad from Nov. 13 until Nov. 27.
In order to make room for Moses, offensive guard/tackle Pete Campion was placed on waivers.
Moses played for the Scottish Claymores during the '02 NFL Europe League season, making 11 receptions for 94 yards and leading the league in punt returns with 25 runbacks for 280 yards, an 11.2-yard average. As a collegian at Iowa State, he caught 82 passes for 1,226 yards (a 15.0-yard average) over his three-year varsity career.
THE (NFL) STATISTICAL UPDATE: After slipping to second place a week ago, the Packers regained the league lead in the takeaway-giveaway standings with a 5-takaway effort against the Bears over the weekend.
They now own a plus-14 reading (including a plus-10 at home), one better than runner-up Tampa Bay, with 38 takeaways (20 interceptions and 18 recoveries of opponent fumbles) compared to 24 giveaways (12 opponent interceptions and 12 lost fumbles).
The Packers have registered a takeaway in 21 consecutive games and have posted 12 inside their own 20-yard line thus far.
Individually, quarterback Brett Favre and running back Ahman Green rank third in the NFC passer ratings and rushing, respectively.
Favre has an 89.2 rating, based upon 263 completions in 420 attempts for 2,957 yards and 22 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions. He also ranks eighth in both third-down passing with a 79.8 rating (64 completions in 113 attempts for 4 touchdowns, with 4 interceptions) and fourth-quarter passing with a 77.7 rating (48 completions in 84 attempts for 525 yards and 3 touchdowns, with 2 interceptions).
Green has rushed for 967 yards (just 82 fewer than conference leader Duce McAllister of New Orleans) in 222 attempts, a 4.4-yard average, and 6 touchdowns. He also ranks third in the NFC in total yards from scrimmage with 1,338, including 371 yards receiving.
Additionally, Green is tied with Shaun Alexander of Seattle for third place in the conference in the production of first downs with 60 (43 rushing and 17 receiving).
Placekicker Ryan Longwell has moved up from third to second place in NFC kicker scoring with 103 points, a point behind the Philadelphia Eagles' David Akers.
Split end Donald Driver now ranks sixth in the NFC in receiving yardage with 935, a 16.1-yard average, and 10th in receptions with 58.
Defensively, safety Darren Sharper is tied for second among NFL interceptors with 5 and end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila is tied for fifth in quarterback sacks in the NFC with 10.0.
Punter Josh Bidwell stands sixth among NFC punters with a 42.5-yard average for 60 punts. He is tied for second place with 21 "inside-the-20" efforts.
From the team perspective, the Packers rank ninth on offense (11th in rushing and seventh in passing) and 14th on defense (tied for 25th against the run and ninth against the pass).
THE FAVRE FILE: When Brett Favre fired a 6-yard scoring strike to tight end Bubba Franks in the third quarter, it marked the 22nd consecutive game in which he has thrown at least one touchdown pass against Chicago. In other words, he has done so in every game that he has faced the Midway Monsters over his 11-year Green Bay career.
The only longer such streak in NFL annals is Dan Marino's 24-game touchdown skein against the New York Jets.
Favre's two scoring throws against the Bears swelled his career total to 309, the third-most in NFL history. Marino is the all-time leader with 420, followed by Frank Tarkenton with 342.
With Sunday's victory, Favre improved his December record to 32-10 (.762), the third-best mark among starting quarterbacks who have launched their careers since 1970 (minimum 20 starts). Only Joe Thiesmann (17-5, .773) and Joe Montana (33-10, .767) own better marks.
THE GREEN FILE: Ahman Green further entrenched himself in the Packers' record book Sunday, becoming only the seventh running back in team annals to amass 5,000 combined yards rushing and receiving. With 78 rushing yards and 45 more receiving against Chicago, Green padded his combined rushing/receiving yardage total as a Packer to 5,053 (3,529 rushing and 1,524 receiving).
Jim Taylor is the all-time leader with 9,712 combined yards (8,207 rushing and 1,505 receiving). Gerry Ellis is second with 6,340 (3,826 rushing and 2,514 receiving; followed by John Brockington with 6,099 (5,024 rushing and 1,075 receiving); Dorsey Levens' 6,016 (3,937 rushing and 2,079 receiving); Edgar Bennett's 5,273 (3,353 rushing and 1,920 receiving); and Paul Hornung's 5,191 (3,711 rushing and 1,480 receiving).
Green, with 5 pass receptions against the Bears, also climbed into the team's all-time Top 20 in receiving, taking over 20th place with 184 career catches, just three behind Hall of Famer Jim Taylor, who ranks 19th with 187.
Green, who suffered a left knee injury on a game-longest 29-yard run early in the third quarter, sat out a portion of the contest. He returned to action early in the fourth quarter, then left the game for good after aggravating the knee injury.
THE LONGWELL FILE: Placekicker Ryan Longwell enlarged his niche in NFL archives, becoming only the third player in league history to score 100 or more points in his first six seasons, joining Denver's Jason Elam and the New England Patriots' Adam Vinatieri. Longwell's 12-point harvest (3 field goals and 3 conversions) padded his season point total to 103.
It also swelled the 28-year-old California alum's career point total to 699, leaving him just one shy of becoming only the fourth player in Packers annals to score 700 points in a career. Longwell, incidentally, has made his last 11 field goal attempts and 47 consecutive points after touchdown. His longest skein in a six-year NFL career is 13, registered twice. He also made 11 straight in 1998.
At home, he is 15 of 16 this season and has converted 13 consecutive field goal attempts.
THE FISHER FILE: Rookie Tony Fisher made the most of his first extended NFL action, churning for 91 yards in 17 carries, a 5.4-yard average, to emerge as the game's leading rusher while posting the first touchdown of his young pro career. He also caught 2 passes or 15 yards, thus contributing 106 yards of total offense to the Green Bay cause.
Fisher's best previous outing statistically came in the Monday night game against Miami Nov. 4, when he posted a 28-yard run from scrimmage. He followed that sortie with a 27-yard rushing effort (in 12 attempts) against Detroit Nov. 10.