THE GAME: From the calendar perspective, the National Football League playoffs are two months away...
As well as the application of such factors as tie-breakers and home field advantage.
And, though the Green Bay Packers are in an enviable position at the moment as owners of the NFL's best record (8-1), they also are well aware they still have seven more regular season games to play...and that nothing is certain at this juncture.
But what they do know is competitively intriguing: That, in the wake of a seventh straight victory, they can clinch the NFC North Division championship with a win over the Minnesota Vikings (2-6) at the Minneapolis Metrodome next Sunday (Nov. 17) and a Detroit loss to the New York Jets in their Sabbath assignment. If accomplished, it will be the earliest that any team has ever clinched a division title (after 10 games) since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978.
Kickoff is set for 12 noon, CST (Wisconsin time).
The title would become the Packers' property because they would then own a 6-game advantage over division runner-up Detroit in the standings - with six games to play - and own a key tie-breaker edge because of having swept the season series with the Lions.
In the wake of that seventh straight win, a dominating, 40-14 triumph over the Detroit Lions in Lambeau Field, it was suggested to GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman that his team might be playing too well, too early.
"Well, I can't tell them not to play well at this point, obviously," Sherman rejoined with unassailable logic, then put his finger on what lies behind that success.
"The guys have made a commitment," he said. "And we talked last night about raising our level of commitment - and I think they did that - to what we want to accomplish this season.
"And we still have a lot of football to go. We've got to go to Minnesota and play them. We've got a lot of games ahead of us that we have to take care of.
"But it certainly was nice today - when there was talk that the Packers might have a letdown - that they didn't do that. I think a good team plays up to their level, regardless of situations. Regardless of whether you played on Monday night and had an emotional victory, and you come back on Sunday (as the Packers did) - whatever the case may be. But I think the men in that (locker) room showed that today."
The Vikings, meanwhile, lost a see-saw battle to the New York Giants, 27-20.
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Dick Stockton will call the play-by-play for the Fox Sports Network telecast of Sunday's game and Daryl Johnston will provide the analysis. Bob Stenner is the producer and Sandy Grossman directs.
The game additionally will be aired over the Packer Radio Network, with Wayne Larrivee handling the play-by-play and Larry McCarren the commentary and analysis. The radio broadcast also will be available on the internet via www.packers.com.
JUST FOR THE RECORD: The Packers last:
- Launched a season with an 8-1 record in the 1996, on their way to a 13-3 record and their first Super Bowl title since 1968, the third in team history.
- Forged a seven-game, in-season winning streak in '63, a year which saw them lose their opening game to the Chicago Bears (10-3), then win the next eight games.
THE SHERMAN STREAKS: Under Mike Sherman, the Packers now have:
- Won 20 straight games in which they have been leading at halftime.
- Padded their won-lost record over the past 29 regular-season games to 24-5...the league's best over that span.
- Improved their Lambeau Field record to 19-3, including last January's Wild Card playoff victory over the San Francisco 49ers; and
- Gone unbeaten (5-0) in "Lambeau" thus far in the 2002 season.
THE SERIES: The won-lost record speaks eloquently for itself with respect to the Packers' neighborhood rivalry with the Minnesota Vikings. Of their 81 meetings to date, the Packers have won 40 games - and the Vikings have won 40 - since the series was launched in 1961, the year Minnesota entered the NFL.
There also has been one tie, a 10-10, sudden death standoff played in Lambeau Field in 1978. It was, appropriately enough, the first regular-season, overtime game in team history.
And, additional testimonials to the intensity of the rivalry:
- There have been five other overtime contests along the way, with the Vikings winning four of them; and
- Better than a third of the principals' 81 encounters, 30 to be exact, have been decided by seven or fewer points.
- The rivalry also seldom has been more closely contested than it recently was during the 1999 and 2000 seasons. During that span, only 18 points separated the Packers and the Purple Gang - an average of a scant 4.5 points per game - and one of those four contests went into sudden death overtime.
THE HEAD COACHES: Unswervingly committed and thoroughly prepared, Mike Sherman has established himself among the elite head coaches in the National Football League and the premier field leaders in the Packers' storied history in just two-and-a-half seasons.
En route, he has attracted league-wide recognition by consistently paralleling the won-lost achievements of the fabled Vince Lombardi on a game-by-game basis. So closely that he is dead even with Lombardi's 29-12 pace of 1959-62 at the same 41-game stage in their respective careers.
And, in escorting his team to an 8-1 start this season, he has begun to see his name mentioned as a leading candidate for "Coach of the Year" honors.
Equally impressive, from the career perspective, Sherman has become only the fourth of the 13 head coaches in Packers history to forge a winning career record, thus joining an exclusive fraternity whose membership additionally includes team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
In so doing, the 47-year-old New Englander has matched another Lombardi accomplishment by leading the Packers into the playoffs in only his second season as head coach and, beyond that, gone one up on him by maneuvering Green Bay to victory in his first postseason effort. The latter is an accomplishment that eluded Lombardi, who lost his initial playoff game as Green Bay's field leader.
A head coach for the first time at any level in 2000, Sherman debuted by leading the Packers to a 9-and-7 record, a season impressively punctuated by a sweep of the Packers' four NFC Central Division rivals (Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota and Tampa Bay), a rare achievement.
Despite taking on the additional and imposing responsibilities of executive vice president and general manager following Ron Wolf's retirement prior to the 2001 season, he subsequently guided the Packers to an imposing 12-and-4 record, a single-season victory total previously surpassed by only three teams in club history.
Sherman then enhanced 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 bow to the Super Bowl-bound St. Louis Rams in a Divisional playoff, 45-17.
The first man in more than a half-century to undertake his multiple responsibilities - since team founder Lambeau last functioned in those capacities in 1949 - Sherman brings impressive and comprehensive credentials to his tri-cornered role. They include a Super Bowl following the1997 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 to be the first of three consecutive years in the playoffs for the 47-year-old Central Connecticut State alumnus, who returned to the postseason with the Packers in 1998 and as the offensive coordinator on Holmgren's staff in 1999.
Sherman, now in his 25th year in the coaching profession, began his coaching career at Stamford, Conn., High School in 1978. He went on to coach in the college ranks for 16 years, including a year as offensive coordinator at Holy Cross and terms as offensive line coach at such highly regarded programs as UCLA and Texas A&M.
Towering Mike Tice, who previously had spent three years as a player and six more as an assistant coach for the Vikings, is in his first year as the sixth head coach in Vikings history.
Tice, a veteran of 14 NFL seasons as a player, played tight end for Minnesota (1992-93 and 1995), coached the team's tight ends in 1996 and the offensive line from 1997 to 2001 before being named head coach January 10, 2002.
He previously had been promoted to assistant head coach prior to the 2001 season and subsequently was made the interim head coach for the Vikings' last regular season game of the '01 campaign.
Tice is the first Vikings alumnus to hold the title of the franchise's head coach. In five seasons coaching the offensive line, he guided five different players - Matt Birk, Jeff Christy, Randall McDaniel, Todd Steussie and Korey Stringer - to 10 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).
A quarterback as a collegian at the University of Maryland (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 his last three playing seasons (1992-93 and 1995).
THE LAST TIME(S): Rivalries being what they are, the Packers had good and bad fortune against the Vikings in 2001.
Chronologically, the latter came first. As has too often been the case, the Green and Gold had their problems in the deafening Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where they fell to the Vikings in their first '01 encounter (Oct. 21), 35-13.
The Packers had to wait until late in the season to exact revenge, turning the tables on the Vikings in their regular-season home finale Dec. 30, 24-13, by dint of a 17-point, come-from-behind fourth quarter.
In their first meeting, the Vikings broke things open in the second period, posting two touchdowns - one of them on quarterback Daunte Culpepper's 43-yard collaboration with wide receiver Cris Carter and the other on a 27-yard scoring runback of an interception by Kailee Wong - and a pair of Gary Anderson field goals in the second quarter to mount a 20-0 lead...all the points they were to need.
Culpepper was the difference-maker on this occasion, subsequently passing for another score in addition to rushing for 71 yards and a touchdown.
The Packers, bidding for their first set of consecutive Metrodome wins since 1987-88, kept Randy Moss (8 catches, 73 yards) out of the end zone, won the turnover margin ( 1) and completed 60 percent of their passes, yet still trailed by as much as 35-7 late in the game.
The Green and Gold were unable to capitalize on three prime opportunities in the first half. They began their first possession on the 50-yard line and advanced to the Minnesota 33, but Ryan Longwell's 51-yard field goal attempt veered wide right.
After the Packers' next series, Chris Akins on punt coverage delivered a perfectly timed hit to force a Troy Walters fumble and set up Green Bay at the Minnesota 16-yard line. But four plays later, on fourth-and-1, the Vikings found a hole in the Packers' line, throwing Ahman Green for a loss, and extinguishing another Green Bay threat. Then, early in the second quarter, after Nate Wayne recovered a Culpepper fumble to give the Packers the ball near midfield, Longwell missed another field goal try, a 42-yarder, to keep the game scoreless.
In the Dec. 30 rematch, Brett Favre led the packers on a clutch, fourth-quarter touchdown drive, and Mike McKenzie returned a late interception for a touchdown to seal the 24-13 victory - the Packers' 40th success in the 41-year-old series.
The victory kept alive the team's title hopes, holding the Packers (11-4) one game behind Chicago (12-3) entering the season's final week. With a coinciding San Francisco loss, the Green Bay win also gave the Packers control over whether they would host a first-round playoff game.
Minnesota (5-10) jolted Green Bay with 10:03 left in the game, when third-string quarterback Spergon Wynn hit Byron Chamberlain over the middle for a 47-yard touchdown. Easily the Vikings' longest pass attempt of the afternoon, the strike put the visitors up, 13-10.
Favre, however, proceeded to engineer a seven-play, 79-yard drive on Green Bay's next possession. He went 5-for-5 for 72 yards on the march, thanks in part to an acrobatic, 19-yard Antonio Freeman catch. Favre's 20-yard dish to Bubba Franks then set up Ahman Green's 4-yard touchdown run with 6:28 left. Earlier, Favre also threw a lead block to spring Donald Driver on a second-quarter touchdown run.
Then, three plays into the Vikings' next drive, McKenzie stepped in front of Cris Carter and raced 38 yards down the opposite sideline to score his first career touchdown and ignite the entire stadium. The play came on the heels of Tyrone Williams' touchdown vs. Cleveland a week earlier. It marked the first time since 1996 the Packers returned interceptions for scores in consecutive weeks.
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. Defensive lineman Darius 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; O-coordinator, 1999), director of research and development Mike Eayrs (similar capacity, 1985-99), college scout Lee Gissendaner (player, 1996) and associate 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 Najeh Davenport and Bubba Franks (Packers) at Miami (Fla.)...Brian Russell (Vikings) and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (Packers) at San Diego State.
Other connections: 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 FAVRE FILE: As has become something of a habit for No. 4, he again moved up in the NFL record book, forging past Joe Montana into sixth place in career passing yards with 40,871. Montana had closed out his career with 40,551.
Favre also moved past Vinny Testaverde (5,726) into fifth place in career passing attempts. with 5,739.
Favre's two touchdown passes swelled his season total to 17 and his career total to 304. He currently is pursuing Frank Tartkenton (342), who is second on the NFL's lifetime list. Dan Marino is the all-time leader with 420.
The freewheeling Favre also made his 166th consecutive start, again extending his NFL record for quarterbacks, and played in his 168th game, taking over fifth place on the Packers' career list for most games played. He had been tied with tight end Ed West at 167.
THE DRIVER FILE: In snaring a career-best 11 passes (his previous high was 7 in the season opener against Atlanta Sept. 8), Donald Driver matched the fourth-highest single game total in Packers history.
His also was the first 11-catch effort by a Packers wide receiver since Oct. 14, 1996, when Don Beebe weighed in with that number.
Driver's 130 yards also were a personal career-high, surpassing the 120-yard effort he recorded against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 7 in posting the first 100-yard receiving performance of his four-year NFL career.
THE LONGWELL FILE: Placekicker Ryan Longwell made four field goals for the seventh time in his six-year NFL career, the latter total including a club record-tying 5 against Arizona in 2000.
In posting 16 points, Longwell also came within one point of his career, single-game high, 17, against Arizona on September 24, 2000.