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Packers making early run

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 17, 2002

With realignment this season, several division rivalries were lost, including the one between NFC Central adversaries Green Bay and Tampa Bay. But the Packers probably are glad the Bucs were shipped to the new NFC South.

Without the 7-2 Bucs to contend with the Packers, winners of seven in a row, are running away with the NFC North at 8-1. In fact, the Packers can clinch the division crown today with a win over the Vikings and a Jets victory over the Lions, both of which are likely.

It would be the earliest any team sewed up a division title since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. The last time the Packers started this hot was six seasons ago, when they won the Super Bowl.

"If they can get that homefield advantage (in the playoffs), I'd go with them (to win the Super Bowl)," said Lions special assistant Sherman Lewis, who was the offensive coordinator for Green Bay's last Super Bowl winner. "They'd be my choice. I think they're good enough to beat anybody on a given day. I think they're going to be hard to beat."

TRIVIA QUESTION: Name the five teams with the best records since the 1999 season.

HERE WE GO AGAIN: The Bengals guaranteed a victory against the expansion Texans and got it. Now receiver Chad Johnson is making the same promise for today's game against the Browns.

"We're going to win, and when we start winning nobody is going to have nothing to say," said Johnson, a cousin of Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson. "We're going to win. No offense to (the Browns), let me say that ahead of time. But we're going to get this one. We're going to get it."

HE'S GONE TOO FAR: Johnson apparently doesn't know when to quit. After guaranteeing the Bengals will beat the Browns today, he went on to say some things that might lead you to believe he has taken one too many shots to the head.

"I don't think there are too many teams that can stop us," he said of the 1-8 Bengals. "There are no teams that can stop us right now when we're clicking and everything's going right."

REMEMBERING THE TUCK: Much is being made today of the Patriots' first meeting against the Raiders since the controversial "tuck ruling" that weighed heavily in New England's upset of Oakland in the AFC division playoffs.

With today's game being played in Oakland, the Patriots say they are concerned about the revenge factor. But not so much from the players as their notoriously intimidating fans, who have been known to throw debris.

Asked about his most vivid recollections of games in Oakland, Patriots cornerback Terrell Buckely said: "Big batteries."

"It's amazing what they know, too," tight end Christian Fauria said. "You're running around warming up and they know where you went to high school, who your wife's first-grade teacher was. They really know their homework. It's like going into a haunted house."

NEVER SAY NEVER: With the game on the line in the final minutes, who would you want at quarterback? Brett Favre? Drew Bledsoe? Kurt Warner?

Your best bet might be Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks. He has staged eight career fourth-quarter comebacks, including three this season. And he has led the Saints on five career game-winning drives on the team's last offensive series.

His fourth-quarter passer rating this season is a sparkling 103.

"He's done that ever since he's been in the league," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "He doesn't get rattled."

STAT OF THE WEEK: Why are the Packers 8-1? Consider that their defense is allowing an average of 12.8 points in their past five games to 33.3 in their first three.

DID YOU KNOW?: The Redskins have scored three second-half points in their past three games.

SPARE THEM YOUR SYMPATHY: Dolphins fans can only wonder how good their team would be if quarterback Jay Fiedler were not nursing an injured thumb. After starting 5-1, Miami has lost three in a row without Fiedler, who is expected to miss at least two more games. That could cost them homefield advantage in the playoffs. That is, if they make it.

But linebacker Zach Thomas said the Dolphins refuse to feel sorry for themselves.

"I promise you this will help us at the end of the year. You'll see," Thomas said. "To say we could be 11-5 and everybody will be cool with that, I don't care. I care about winning in the playoffs. What, we can't go 12-4? What, we can't go 11-5?

"We've got the talent. I don't need no tissues. I'm not going to feel sorry for ourselves. That's just a cancer. That contaminates you. If there's 200 people at our next game and people are off the bandwagon, we'll play for those 200 people."

TRIVIA ANSWER: The Rams (41-16), the Titans (38-19), the Bucs (37-20), the Packers (37-20) and the Dolphins (36-21).

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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