Warren Sapp and the Bucs see Green Bay as the perfect opponent for Sunday's big game
It's not as if this game sneaked up on the NFL. Even with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming off a disappointing 8-8 campaign in 1998 and the Green Bay Packers slipping from two-time Super Bowl participants to Wild Card losers, the schedule-makers thought enough of Sunday's Bucs-Packers battle to make it a featured 4:15 game in the league's penultimate weekend.
Besides the draw of the usually-tough 'Black-and-Blue' NFC Central division, this game had the possibility of being a crucial playoff determinant if the Bucs rebounded as expected in 1999 and the Packers remained one of the conference's best squads. And indeed, one day after Christmas, the Bucs and Packers will play a game described as a 'must-win' by both sides.
Of course, that tag is more accurately applied to the Packers, who at 7-7 will probably drop out of playoff contention with a loss. Tampa Bay, at 9-5, can reach the playoffs by winning either of their final two games or even, conceivably, with a pair of losses and an eventual 9-7 mark. However, two wins will deliver the Bucs' first division crown since 1981 while a loss to the Packers could put their title hopes in serious jeopardy. That it is the Packers who could do this to the Bucs, or the Bucs who could derail the Packers, is fitting to Tampa Bay's players.
"It's ironic that we get a chance to play the team that we've been trying to catch for so long in a game that could get us into the playoffs," said DT Warren Sapp, who leads the team with 12.5 sacks. "We have a chance to bury them and put ourselves in the playoffs and not worry about them anymore."
Sapp, of course, was a favorite target for reporters this week, since his personal duel with Green Bay QB Brett Favre seems to have taken on a life of its own, almost as large as the game itself. Sapp and Favre's rivalry entered the national consciousness in the 1997 playoffs, when the Bucs' Pro Bowl tackle chased the league MVP around all day, sacking him three times and starting a series of good-natured jawing sessions. He has since saved his best efforts for games against Green Bay, although Favre's own efforts have helped the Packers come away winners in eight of the last nine meetings.
Just as the Bucs can obtain a valued goal with a win over Green Bay, Sapp can reach an important milestone by sacking Favre on Sunday. Sapp's 1999 sack total is just one-half shy of the team record, set at 13 by Hall of Fame DE Lee Roy Selmon in 1977. Recent history would suggest that Sapp has a good shot at surpassing Selmon on Sunday.
When the Bucs and Packers last squared off, in Lambeau Field on October 10, the Tampa Bay passrush got to Favre five times, including two sacks by Sapp, predictably. However, Favre mounted a heroic rally to lead Green Bay to a last-minute touchdown and a 26-23 win while passing for 390 yards. Last December, when the Packers visited Raymond James Stadium for a Monday night game on December 7, with the Bucs' clinging to playoff life support, Tampa Bay dropped Favre eight times, once by Sapp, as the Buccaneers pulled out a 24-22 win.
Despite that win, Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy knows that his team has "played so close to them but not quite gotten over the top." Thus, for the Super Bowl-seeking Tampa Bay franchise, the Packers have become somewhat of a symbol for the Buccaneers, a team that should be bested before the organization can move on to higher things. Green Bay went through the same process with Dallas a few years back, as Dallas did with San Francisco.
"That would be a perfect script for you to write," said LB Derrick Brooks to media questioners in the Buccaneer locker room. "Hopefully, that will be the story on Monday. We've got to have this win, and it would be perfect to have it against Green Bay, the team that's been our measuring stick for so long."
And, despite the Packers' .500 record, the Buccaneers expect them to come to Raymond James Stadium every bit as difficult as they have been during their long playoff run in the 1990s. "We assume they are going to be strong, like the champions they have been. We're going to have to match that. It's fitting that we play them in this situation, because of our record against them. They always play us tough, regardless of what place they're in or what place we're in. They're confident in their ability to beat us and, really, they should be considering their record. The only way for us to stop that is to start beating them."
So the schedule-makers got it right. Just as the Bucs' December 6 game against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football was a battle for first place, which Tampa Bay won, Sunday's game will be a crucial battle played on a national stage. "It's a huge game," said LB Hardy Nickerson. "We're playing for the division title and we have an opportunity to get it by beating the Packers at home, which we would love to do. They're going to be fired up, we're going to be fired up…it's like a playoff atmosphere."