DT Warren Sapp and the Bucs can expect Brett Favre and the Packers to stand tall on Sunday
The convoluted NFC playoff picture failed to clear up last weekend, but at least one team has found itself in an unfamiliar position. The Green Bay Packers (7-7) face an uphill battle for a postseason spot after losing at Minnesota on Monday, meaning the Pack could miss the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
One suspects the Packers need no added motivation for a game in Tampa, but they got it anyway when the Vikings earned a narrow 24-20 victory over Green Bay in Minneapolis. Minnesota (8-6) moved to within a game of the Buccaneers (9-5) for the NFC Central lead but the Packers fell into an uneasy tie with Carolina, Dallas and the New York Giants.
The Bucs can expect no moping from their 'Battle of the Bays' rival. "We can't feel sorry for ourselves," said Green Bay Head Coach Ray Rhodes. "New we've got to go play. This one here hurts everybody. It hurt to come up short."
Though the Packers didn't get one last score in a back-and-forth game, they came close, as QB Brett Favre drove his team to within 30 yards of the end zone as time was expiring. It was a familiar picture to the Buccaneers, who saw their own rousing comeback in Green Bay on October 10 fall short when Favre responded with a game-winning TD drive in the final 100 seconds of a 26-23 Packer win.
Buccaneer Head Coach Tony Dungy expects nothing less than that type of effort from Green Bay on Sunday. "They're down to their last bullets," said Dungy. "They know they have to win to get in. I think we'll see a championship heart from them. They have a lot of veteran leaders who know what it takes to get to the playoffs…Brett Favre, LeRoy Butler, Antonio Freeman."
The Packers have actually been almost as effective on the road as they have at home this year, surprising considering Green Bay's usual Lambeau Field dominance. The Packers are 4-3 at home so far and 3-4 on the road after recent wins at San Francisco and Chicago. Their last trip to Tampa Bay, however, resulted in a 24-22 loss to the Buccaneers on December 7, 1998, although they had previously won in Tampa in '96 and '97.
Their trip to Raymond James Stadium this year provides Tampa Bay with its first chance to rebound after a stunning 45-0 loss at Oakland last Sunday. Still, Dungy doesn't believe the Packers will put too much stock in that result. He says that, if the situation were reversed, he would expect a spirited team on the rebound.
"I would expect them to be professionals," said Dungy of his hypothetical view from the other side. "I would expect their guys to come out and play well. I would want to get out to a good start and try to put that doubt in their mind about the week before. So I think you will see (Green Bay) come in here and try to get off to a fast start."
The Packers did just that in the October 10 meeting, opening up a 10-0 first-quarter lead in Lambeau thanks to a Buccaneer turnover. The Bucs did not doubt themselves on that day, however, roaring back to take a 13-10 lead at halftime and, eventually a short-lived 23-19 lead in the fourth quarter. Though that comeback fell short for Tampa Bay, they have repeatedly shown the ability to overcome early deficits in 1999. Victories over Atlanta (19-10 on 11/21) and Detroit (23-16 on 12/12) each came after the Bucs were down 10-0, half of the four games Tampa Bay has won after trailing entering the second period.
Last week's game in Oakland was an obvious deviation from that pattern, as a 10-0 first quarter deficit continued to balloon in each subsequent period. Dungy would just as soon see his team not need another comeback. "We've been very slow starting," he said. "I don't have the stats in front of me, but in the first quarter we're way, way down (in points) and that's hard to do. It's hard to win that way, normally. If you get out on top and force people to play your game, you're going to have a lot better chance."
Similarly, whichever team wins on Sunday in Raymond James Stadium is going to have a lot better chance to secure their playoff goals. Even if late rallies have become their specialty, the Buccaneers would rather not wait until the final week of the season to punch their playoff ticket.