Challenging finish

The National Football League made it a little tougher for the Green Bay Packers to defend their NFC North Division crown this season. The Packers finish the season with two games away from home, including a Christmas Eve matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.<p>

Just two of Green Bay's final five games are at Lambeau Field, and three of the final five are against NFC opponents. The Packers have gone 17-2 under Mike Sherman since 2000 in regular-season games played in December and beyond at home.

After playing the Vikings in a rare Friday night game on Christmas Eve, Green Bay finishes the regular season at Chicago against the Bears on Jan. 2. It marks the first time since 1985 that the Packers play back-to-back road games to finish the regular season.

"It didn't seem to be a concern to Mike (Sherman)," Packers president Bob Harlan said. "I'm glad the two preceding it are at home. I think that's a help for them. They're short trips. There is some time between them. It didn't seem to bother the coaches, so I'm fine with it."

The Packers are one of five teams that play the maximum of three Monday Night Football games, including the season opener on Sept. 13 against the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers in Charlotte. The Packers also will make an appearance on ESPN's Sunday Night Football, playing at Houston against the Texans on Nov. 21.

"I happened to be here during the 70s and 80s when most of our games were played at noon on Sunday and everybody kept saying, 'Why aren't you on national TV?'" Harlan said. "I said, 'We simply aren't good enough.' And now we are.

"I think the schedule we've got this year is a great tribute to (GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman) and his staff and what they've done in football. And it shows the popularity of the franchise."

The league gave Dallas, Kansas City, Philadelphia and St. Louis the maximum of three Monday Night Football games this season.

The Packers will benefit from having their bye week in the middle of the season, following their Week 8 game at the Washington Redskins (Oct. 31) and preceding their first meeting with the division rival Vikings (Nov. 14).

"I don't think it could come at a better time," Harlan said of the bye week.

The Packers open at home against the Bears (Sept. 19) for the first time since 1997 and the 19th time in the series between the two teams.

The "Gold" package games for Milwaukee season-ticket holders are Oct. 3 against the New York Giants and Nov. 14 against Minnesota.

Green Bay's Christmas Eve game against the Vikings marks the first time in 55 years that the Packers have played on a Friday. It will be the only game on Christmas Eve. The NFL scheduled two games on Christmas Day.

"Christmas Eve, I kind of wish it was here; the people in Green Bay would love it," Harlan said. "But that's fine. I appreciate the national exposure we get."

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