Four of first six on the road

In the age of parity and free agency, last year's chump could be this year's champ, or the other way around, in the National Football League. The Green Bay Packers are probably hoping that they catch the chumps before they transform into hulks.<p>

If they can, the Packers have every chance to improve on their 12-4 regular season finish from last year.

"Last year at this time when we talked about the schedule, it was a difficult schedule," said Packers coach and general manager Mike Sherman March 28 when the NFL released the 2002 lineup. "Some of the teams that we thought were going to be very, very difficult didn't turn out to be quite as difficult and vice versa. With the way things are changing with free agency, you really don't know what you have, us included, until you start the season and start to play the game.

"To say that this is a certain type of schedule at this point is really presumptuous because no one really knows what type of team they have right now until you get through with free agency and the draft and minicamps, and hopefully make it through without injury."

The Packers play four of their first six games on the road, including a Monday night away game against the Chicago Bears in Champaign, Ill., followed by a road game at New England against the Super Bowl champion Patriots. But the first four are against teams that did not qualify for the playoffs last year – Atlanta, at New Orleans, at Detroit, and at home against Carolina. Those four teams had a combined 17-49 record.

When they return from the East Coast, the Packers host the Washington Redskins, behind new head coach Steve Spurrier, then get a bye and play the next two games at home – Miami (Nov. 4 on Monday Night Football) and Detroit. The Packers will then go on their third back-to-back road trip, but it is at Minnesota and Tampa Bay, two teams with new head coaches.

Still, Sherman and the Packers will be on guard.

"When a staff comes together, having gone through that myself, I know the struggles that occur," Sherman said. "At the same time, there's an unknown factor that we don't know exactly what they're going to be doing offensively or defensively, so they have the element of surprise to use against us."

The Packers finish their schedule by playing three of their last five games, all in December, at home, including a Sunday night on ESPN against Minnesota. In all, the Packers have three prime-time appearances, and are playing at least one game on Monday Night Football for the 10th straight season.

Except for 1996 when they opened at Chicago, the Packers have begun the regular season with a home game.

Playing at home in December is an extra large advantage. Since 1992, the Packers have the league's best December home record (18-2, .900) and are 31-10 (.756) overall in that time span.

So, if the Packers can get off to a solid start, they have a good chance of finishing well, too.

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