The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play at Lambeau Field for the first time in six years on Sunday, in a game pitting the 4-7 visitors against a 5-6 Green Bay Packers squad. In the summer, this early-December date looked like it could be particularly significant in the NFC playoff hunt, but now both teams are hanging on to the fringes of that race. However, the Buccaneers are still fighting, and they expect as tough of a challenge from the Packers as ever.
"You see a team that's used to being in the playoffs every year," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "They got off to a fast start this year and now they've struggled since their starting quarterback went out. They're 1-4 since their starter went out. They're still in the mix if they can put together a win streak, and they're a team that counts on winning at home. So I'm sure they're looking at us as a team that they have a chance to get after. At the same time, we're going up there and we're going to do our best to bring one home."
Indeed, the Packers have qualified for the postseason in each of the last eight years, a streak only matched by the Patriots. They got off to a 4-1 start to this season but then lost not only a first-place showdown but also star quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a shoulder injury in Week Six at Minnesota. With the talented but inexperienced Brett Hundley taking over the offense, Green Bay has lost four of its last five. That said, Hundley is coming off his best start in a narrow loss in Pittsburgh last Sunday night.
Rodgers could possibly return from injured reserve in Week 15, and Green Bay's playoff hopes would likely still be alive if they can defeat the Buccaneers and the currently winless Browns in the next two weeks. However, the first part of that task might be a bit tougher because Tampa Bay is getting its own injured passer back this week.
Photos of Bucs players wearing their custom Week 13 shoes for the My Cause My Cleats campaign.
Jameis Winston will start for the first time since a shoulder injury knocked him out of a Week 10 contest at New Orleans. He had first hurt his throwing shoulder in Week Six at Arizona but had played through some discomfort for the next three weeks, to mixed results. After three weeks of rest, Winston is fully healthy again and undoubtedly eager to play.
"You're always excited to get your starting quarterback back, and I know Jameis is especially excited," said Koetter. "When you have to sit out for a couple-three games like he did, you know he's just itching to get back out there."
Winston will be playing behind a wall of blockers that just had the lineup shuffled thanks to right tackle Demar Dotson and center Ali Marpet landing on injured reserve. In addition, center Joe Hawley, who had been preparing to start at center in Marpet's spot, will not play on Sunday due to illness. As a result, the Buccaneers will start former Packer Evan Smith at center and play Caleb Benenoch at right tackle.
"It means we're going to have our depth tested," said Koetter. "That's why guys like Evan Smith and Joe Hawley, two veterans that have played a lot of football in their careers are still here. The other guy who will step into more playing time is Caleb Benenoch."
Before these lineup changes, Tampa Bay's offensive line had excelled in pass-blocking but had its difficulties in run-blocking. The Buccaneers rank seventh in the league in fewest sacks allowed per pass play, but they also are averaging just 81.1 rushing yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. Adding to the challenge in getting that run game untracked at Lambeau is the concussion that will keep starting tailback Doug Martin sidelined for the weekend.
The Buccaneers will likely make use of all three of their remaining tailbacks: Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and Peyton Barber. Barber scored on two short touchdown runs in Atlanta but Rodgers has been the primary ballcarrier in most instances when Martin has missed time the last two seasons. That could change in Green Bay, as Barber is expected to start on Sunday.
"Peyton's a hard downhill runner and he'll do fine when he gets his opportunities," said Koetter. "[The healthy backs] will be getting the ball more, that's the main thing. Green Bay's in a similar situation; they were without their first and second running backs last week against Pittsburgh. I think one of them might have a chance to get back. You don't like to see any player miss a game due to injury, but for the other guys, shoot, of course they're excited. It means they're going to get more carries."
The Buccaneers' entire seven-man inactive list is made up of injured or ill players: Martin, Hawley, safety Josh Robinson, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, safety T.J. Ward, defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald.
Green Bay put starting running back Ty Montgomery on injured reserve late in the week and will also be without rookie cornerback Kevin King. However, defensive tackle Kenny Clark and linebacker Clay Matthews, both of whom missed the Packers' last game, are back in the lineup. In addition to King, the Packers deactivated cornerback Donatello Brown, guard Lucas Patrick, guard/tackle Adam Pankey, WR Michael Clark, defensive tackle Montravius Adams and linebacker Chris Odom.
The Buccaneers and Packers kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.