The Green Bay Packers have gotten a lesson in humility this year.
Just two months ago, safety LeRoy Butler was talking about the Super Bowl champions posting a perfect season.
But after struggling to a 5-2 start and failing to cover the spread in all seven games, the Packers find themselves two-point underdogs when they go to Foxboro Stadium on Monday night for a Super Bowl rematch against the New England Patriots.
Not surprisingly, Butler is singing a different tune.
What are the Packers' chances of repeating?
"Not very good," Butler said. "Until we start playing better, we can forget about that repeating stuff. If we don't start playing better, we'll be struggling to make the playoffs."
The Packers have been hurt by injuries and the usual letdown that comes with being Super Bowl champions.
It hasn't helped that quarterback Brett Favre isn't having an MVP year and that their defense, hampered by the absence of injured nose tackle Gilbert Brown, is ranked 27th against the run. Last year, it was fourth.
Coach Mike Holmgren gave the players the bye week off in an attempt to recharge their batteries.
They also hope that Brown, who's listed as questionable with a kneecap injury, can return.
Defensive tackle Santana Dotson said Brown is eager to get back on the field.
"He's like a horse in the stalls who's kicking around and can't wait to get out there," Dotson said.
The Packers are so desperate for defensive line help that they picked up Gerald Williams off waivers from the Carolina Panthers earlier this week.
How the Packers are able to defend against Patriots running back Curtis Martin will play a key role in the game.
The Patriots are favored because they have the home-field advantage in what is the first Super Bowl rematch to be held on a Monday night.
Best of the rest
Vikings at Bucs: When Tampa Bay beat Minnesota, 28-14, on Sept. 14, it was considered a surprise, but it became part of the Bucs' 5-0 start. This time, the Bucs are favored despite two straight losses. The winner will share first place in the NFC Central with Green Bay if the Packers win. If the Packers lose, the winner gets sole possession.
The Bucs have more at stake because another loss would start speculation that they're reverting to their losing ways. The Vikings, by contrast, have won three straight, and quarterback Brad Johnson is having a great year.
Jaguars at Steelers: When Pittsburgh went to Jacksonville last month, Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said the Steelers would decide when this series becomes a rivalry. Pittsburgh promptly lost in Jacksonville for the third straight year (a blocked field-goal attempt at the end was the difference), and the Steelers are now treating this like a rivalry. The two 5-2 teams are playing for first place in the AFC Central.
In the first game, the Steelers' Jerome Bettis ran for 114 yards and the Jaguars' Mark Brunell passed for 306, and they'll again be the main offensive weapons, although the Pittsburgh secondary seems to be improved now that Carnell Lake has switched from safety to cornerback.
Worth a look
Ravens at Redskins: The William Donald Schaefer Bowl is a one-sided rivalry since Redskins fans who follow the Orioles generally don't root against the Ravens the way Baltimore fans root against the Redskins. On the field, it's a pivotal game because both teams are struggling, but neither is taking drastic action and neither is likely to capitalize on the other's main weakness.
Gus Frerotte isn't playing well enough to shred the Ravens' suspect secondary, and it's difficult to run the ball effectively from a three-receiver formation, so the Ravens probably can't pound the Redskins' 29th-ranked rushing defense. That means the game probably will be decided by turnovers.
Cowboys at Eagles: Eagles coach Ray Rhodes switched to Rodney Peete at quarterback last Sunday to give his team a spark, and the Eagles needed overtime to escape with a victory over Arizona. Look for the Eagles to be more fired up for this game because they're playing the Cowboys.
The Cowboys are struggling, but they're still the Cowboys. Dallas, which needed a bad snap on a field-goal attempt to beat the Eagles at home in the first game, already has three road division losses and can't afford another.
Raiders at Seahawks: How can you figure out the Raiders? They started 2-4 and then upset the Broncos last Sunday. Now they can reach .500 by upsetting the Seahawks, who have won four of five after an 0-2 start.
The Raiders' Napoleon Kaufman rushed for 227 yards on Sunday and will test Seattle's 23rd-ranked run defense. Former Raven Eric Turner also is helping the Raiders, having returned a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown against Denver. Warren Moon will be looking for Joey Galloway, who averages 23.8 yards a catch against the Raiders, as the Seahawks try to take advantage of a Raiders pass defense that ranks 26th.
Broncos at Bills: The Broncos will try to rebound against a gritty Buffalo team that barely outlasted the Colts on Monday night. Terrell Davis figures to have a good game against a Bills defense that is 17th against the rush.
The Bills have won four of the past five meetings, although the Broncos won the last one, 22-7, in 1995. The Broncos have won 20 of their past 24 regular-season games, the best stretch in club history, but the only game anybody remembers is the loss to Jacksonville in the 1996 playoffs.
Filling out the schedule
Bengals at Giants: The home team has won every game in this series (the Bengals lead 4-1) and the Giants should continue that streak. They're in sole possession of first place in the NFC East for the first time since Week 4 of 1994. Danny Kanell has given the team a new dimension. When the Giants won the coin toss in overtime against the Lions, he told the defensive players their day was done. He then went out and threw a 68-yard touchdown pass. It ain't bragging if you can do it.
Oilers at Cardinals: The Cardinals keep losing close games, including last week's 13-10 overtime loss to the Eagles. At 1-6, Arizona is turning to rookie Jake Plummer after he came off the bench to direct a game-tying touchdown drive in Philadelphia. Plummer, the former Arizona State star, also figures to sell tickets. The Oilers will send Eddie George against an Arizona defense ranked 21st against the run.
49ers at Saints: The only question is whether the 49ers will cover the two-touchdown spread. They beat the Saints, 33-7, at home in the first meeting with the help of eight turnovers. The 49ers have won seven of the past eight games in the series.
Falcons at Panthers: Carolina, off to a rocky start, could get back to .500. The Panthers barely beat the Falcons, 9-6, in Atlanta in Week 2, and four of the five games in the series have been decided by four points or fewer. ESPN takes over the Sunday night package next week, so this game isn't exactly a memorable way to finish the TNT slate.
Chiefs at Rams: Tony Banks figures to hear a lot of booing from the St. Louis fans who aren't pleased with his 59.7 quarterback rating. By contrast, Elvis Grbac is having a good season for the Chiefs. He has an 83.6 rating, with 10 touchdown passes and five interceptions.
Colts at Chargers: The 0-7 Colts' past four losses have come by a total of 11 points, but they'll probably find a way to lose and keep pace with the Bears in the battle for the No. 1 draft pick. Paul Justin is likely to replace ailing Jim Harbaugh at quarterback, not that it will make much difference.
Bears at Dolphins: The Bears came to Miami 12 years ago and lost a bid for a perfect season. This time, they should stay on pace for a winless season, which hasn't been done in a 16-game schedule.
Vito Stellino's power rankings
1. Denver: Last of the unbeatens finally falls.
2. San Francisco: Penn State has a tougher schedule.
3. Green Bay: Underdog in Foxboro after going 0-7 against the spread.
4. New England: From Tuna Bowl II to Super Bowl rematch.
5. Pittsburgh: Steelers always split with the Jags.
6. Minnesota: Can the Vikings stop Dunn this time?
7. Tampa Bay: Can Dunn shred the Vikings again?
8. Jacksonville: Jaguars weren't ready for Big D last week.
9. Kansas City: Should win Missouri state title.
10. Dallas: The Cowboys aren't quite dead yet.
11. Miami: Discovered its running game last week.
12. New York Giants: Kanell has turned the team around.
13. Washington: It's time to bench Gus for Hoss.
14. Philadelphia: Peete got them in win column, barely.
15. New York Jets: O'Donnell's waiting for the Ravens.
16. Detroit: Still on win-one, lose-one track.
17. Buffalo: Won ugly in Indy on Monday night.
18. Seattle: Moon hopes to make playoffs again.
19. Carolina: Should climb to .500 Sunday.
20. Ravens: Can't run from three-wide-receiver formation.
21. Tennessee: Oilers will be used to small Arizona crowd.
22. Oakland: Napoleon could run to Moscow.
23. San Diego: Should keep Colts winless.
24. Arizona: It's time for Cards to call in a Plummer.
25. St. Louis: The Rams are No. 2 in Missouri.
26. Cincinnati: Bengals will keep Ravens out of cellar.
L 27. New Orleans: Ditka's appearing on "Saturday Night Live."
28. Atlanta: Giants don't miss Dan Reeves.
29. Indianapolis: Would Manning pull an Elway on the Colts?
30. Chicago: Manning would like to play in Chicago.
Pub Date: 10/24/97