On Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to pull off the same feat they memorably accomplished on November first, 1998.
Those '98 Buccaneers took a 3-4 record into Week Nine of the season and then welcomed to town the Minnesota Vikings, one of their NFC Central rivals. Led by Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Randall Cunningham and Robert Smith, those high-flying Vikings were scoring 34 points per game and were the NFL's only undefeated team.
The Buccaneers eventually prevailed that afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, 27-24, in one of the most unforgettable games in franchise history. The Vikings still went on to a 15-1 record in the 1998 regular season and a narrow loss to Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
This weekend, the 4-5 Buccaneers take on the 9-0 Green Bay Packers, hoping to become the first team to take down the defending Super Bowl champs since Week 15 of the 2010 season. It's fitting that it's another matchup from the old NFC Central that gives Tampa Bay this opportunity.
To be sure, there is nothing from that 1998 game that will have any impact on Sunday's outcome at Lambeau. There is only one player, in fact, from that team that is still with the Buccaneers – Ronde Barber, of course. But these Buccaneers, running in the middle of the pack after a breakout 10-6 campaign the year before – exactly as in 1998 – relish a similar opportunity to prove themselves against the best. Unlike that afternoon 13 years ago, this one is on the road, and just happens to be staged in one of the most revered venues in all of sports…all of which only enhances the quality of the opportunity.
"There's no doubt about it," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "There's a football game to be played and we've got to go out and play it. It's a great place to play. Hopefully at some point when we're all done we can look back and say we played at Lambeau and got a big win."
For their part, the Buccaneers will be looking to snap a three-game losing streak and get back into the thick of the competitive NFC South race. To do so, they'll need to shake off the problems that plagued them in a lopsided loss to Houston a week ago, most notably a deficiency in tackling. That was one of the main areas of focus in practice this week, as the Bucs ran consecutive padded practices for the first time since training camp. Morris believes the more intense work did a good job of refocusing his young team.
"It was great," he said. "Guys went out and worked hard and practiced hard. Now we've got to go out and execute. You only get so many padded days and there aren't many times you can go two in a week. We chose this week to do it and it should be good for our football team to get the physical play back the way we want to do it. It was good for us.
"To create more competition in practice is always good. Between the O-Line and D-Line, between the receivers and DBs, those are the things you want to do because that's how it is on game day. Today, we need to go out there and make sure it pays off for us."
While those '98 Vikings featured Moss and company and were one of the highest-scoring teams in league history, the '11 Packers are equally as dangerous when they have the football. QB Aaron Rodgers currently owns a 130.7 passer rating that would easily break the NFL record if maintained, and he is impressively spreading the ball around to a wide cast of characters. Green Bay leads the NFL with 320 points scored, which is just below 36 points per game.
"You're talking about a great football team that won a championship last year," said Morris. "Aaron Rodgers is doing a great job of organizing and running the show. His receivers, [Greg] Jennings and [Donald] Driver and all those guys are doing a great job for him. They do a great job of protecting and blocking downfield."
The Packers' defense seems a little more vulnerable, ranking 26th in yards allowed this season. But Green Bay is still 13th in the more important statistic of points allowed and is setting the NFL pace with 17 interceptions. Pro Bowler Charles Woodson leads the way with five picks. The Packers play a very aggressive form of defense that can lead to big plays on both sides of the ball.
"On defense they play hard and they're opportunistic," said Morris. "They lead the league in picks. They're doing a great job of not turning the ball over. They organize their game well. They're well-coached. With Charles Woodson, you're talking about a guy that's been playing the game for awhile. He's one of the great vets. You hope he doesn't touch the ball. You hope to stay away from him. With those risks come a lot of rewards in their case. That's why they won a championship.
"We've got a healthy challenge on our hands today and we can't wait to play it."
If the Bucs can't keep the Packers off their usual scoring pace, they may have to hold their own in a shootout in order to get the win. That will put the onus on third-year QB Josh Freeman to get himself and the offense as a whole back into the high-scoring groove they had in the second half of last season. Freeman has been overcoming a right thumb injury in recent weeks but both he and Morris insist it is absolutely no factor this week.
"He's looked good in practice all year," said Morris. "We won't make any excuses. There's nothing wrong with anybody's health. Everybody in the National Football League has a health issue at this point. We've got to go out there and play football games and try to win.
"It's all about execution, like it always is. We've got to go out and execute our game plan. We've got to execute with our young quarterback and our young players, get those guys to play fast, play hard, play smart and play consistent."
There are two other factors the Buccaneers must successfully deal with on Sunday in order to come out on top: weather and injuries. Both teams will be playing in roughly 30-degree weather during the afternoon, though the forecast indicates it might warm up all the way to 35. That's what Morris would call "gray matter," meaning it shouldn't affect his players, but it is still an environment they haven't encountered this year until Sunday.
As for injuries, they will rob the Buccaneers of starting free safety Tanard Jackson (hamstring), as well as defensive reserves LB Dekoda Watson (groin) and DT Frank Okam (calf). With Jackson out, the Buccaneers will start Corey Lynch at free safety but rotate him with fellow reserve Larry Asante. The Bucs might also have some defensive packages that put Barber into something of a safety role.
In addition to Jackson, Watson and Okam, the Buccaneers deactivated CB Anthony Gaitor, T Demar Dotson, G Derek Hardman and WR Micheal Spurlock.
The Packers declared the following seven inactives for Sunday's game: CB Davon House, LB Robert Francois, LB Jamari Lattimore, LB Frank Zombo, G/T Ray Dominguez, T Chad Clifton and TE D.J. Williams. Zombo and Clifton were out due to injuries, with Clifton missing his fifth straight game with a hamstring issue. Marshall Newhouse will continue to start at left tackle, Clifton's usual spot.
The Bucs and Packers kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.