An Enduring Rivalry

November 21 – Some thought the rivalry between Tampa Bay and Green Bay ended when the NFL realigned both teams into separate divisions during the offseason. But even though they're no longer in the NFC Central Division together, the 8-2 Packers and 8-2 Buccaneers will face each other Sunday in a game that has all the makings of another classic "Battle of the Bays" showdown.

The Buccaneers and Packers spent at least a part of four consecutive decades together in the NFC Central Division, but the National Football League realigned during the offseason, placing Tampa Bay in the new NFC South Division and Green Bay in the new NFC North Division.

Some thought the rivalry that seemed like it had just started would end when the two teams were realigned, but now that both teams are 8-2 and own the best records in the NFL, this Sunday's game has endured one of the most popular rivalries in the league in recent years.

"(It's still a rivalry) especially now with both of us being at the top of our conferences," said Bucs strong safety John Lynch. "It is going to be a hard fought game, it always is when it's the Battle of the Bays. It's only one year removed from them being in our division, we are both fighting for that top spot in the NFC, and so it's a great rivalry."

Tampa Bay is 17-28-1 against Green Bay in the regular season, including 11-11-1 at home. The Bucs have won all four of its meetings with the Packers at Raymond James Stadium and playing at home will certainly bode well for the Pewter Pirates. But the fans, of course, will not win or lose the game for the Bucs on Sunday. So, what exactly has Tampa Bay done in order to send Green Bay home winless in their last four meetings in Tampa?

"The one thing we have done every time they have come down here is stop the running game," said Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "Ahman Green is something special in their backfield. We have always eliminated their running game and when we get that going, we've always had a pretty good pass rush. We have never had anything nightmarish, except that one time we got the ball out of (Brett Favre's) hand six or seven times, but other than that we just play good solid defense and it has always come down to a two-minute situation. We have our work cut out for us."

Stopping Green will not be an easy task for the league's No. 1 ranked defense, which has only surrendered 97.1 rushing yards per game this season. Green Bay's running back is one of the reasons why quarterback Brett Favre has been able to play at a Pro Bowl-level this season. Green has rushed for 833 yards, six touchdowns and he has averaged 4.3 yards per carry this season. While Favre is arguably the most dangerous quarterback in the league, the Bucs' defense will aim to stop Green Bay's rushing attack first on Sunday.

"I think the key to stopping Brett Favre is not allowing him to have a running game," said Bucs cornerback Dwight Smith. "We have to worry about Ahman Green. Because once you have Ahman Green and Brett Favre to worry about, it gets tough. If you can stop one or the other, it makes it a little easier. So hopefully we can get in there and stop Ahman Green and make Brett Favre beat us."

Favre is the leader of the league's No. 8 ranked offense. He has completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 2,450 yards and he's tossed 19 touchdowns and just seven interceptions this season. Favre is known for his play-making ability, but the Bucs know they'll have to make some plays of their own in order to defeat the Packers Sunday.

"He studies," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Green Bay's superstar quarterback. "He knows what he's doing. He senses pressure and knows where to go with the ball. He throws it on time. He's got sheer ability, too. He can run, he can throw, he's got unbelievable toughness and he's got a charisma about him that just unites the football team. He's got an unbelievable rapport with his team on offense, defense, young guys, old guys. He's got a certain magic about him that really makes him special."

Turnovers will likely play a big part in the outcome of Sunday's contest. The Packers have the best turnover ratio in the league (plus-15) and Tampa Bay is right behind them (plus-12). While Favre has only thrown seven interceptions this season, Tampa Bay's defense has had a knack for creating turnovers against Green Bay. The Bucs' defense, which has 21 interceptions through 10 games, picked off Favre five times in their two meetings last season.

"It will be a big part of it," Gruden said of turnovers. "Takeaways always are a big part of the NFL and, certainly, the turnover ratio has a lot to do with the records of both teams. Green Bay's been particularly effective at taking the ball away – they lead the league in (getting) turnovers and we're not far behind. We've got to be careful with the ball; at the same time, you've got to be aggressive or you're not going to make any yards against this defense."

Favre is the type of quarterback that will pick apart a secondary if he has time to throw, which is why Tampa Bay's defense, which has recorded 31 sacks this season, must get to Favre early and often in order to disrupt Green Bay's potent offense.

Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who has notched 7.5 sacks this season, and Favre established a rivalry of their own in 1997 when the Bucs and Packers met in the second-round of the playoffs, and it has been growing ever since.

"Well, it's been well-documented and I respect it," Gruden said of the rivalry between Sapp and Favre. "Any time you have two of the marquee players at their positions going head to head, it's very exciting. I've admired the competition from miles away. Sapp has that going with a lot of guys, now. Every week he seems to be revving up for somebody. But this is special, and it's very important to both guys and both teams."

Despite all of the local and national media attention this upcoming game has received throughout the week, some of the Tampa Bay players said the game against Green Bay is just the next game on their schedule.

"I look at this game as the same as I do every week," said Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson. "A lot is at stake and at the end of the season it will all wind itself out. I'll let the guru's and everyone else figure out who is going to have home-field advantage and all that talk. The biggest thing is getting ready for a big, big game. They have some tough schemes that we have to figure out through the course of the week and step up to the challenge. I have certain games circled every year. I circle 16 of them. They are all the same to me. There is no game that is bigger than any others. Of course the division races will figure themselves out, come January, but I'm more excited about trying to get our ninth win regardless of where we are playing or who we are playing."

Best record in the NFL and possibly homefield advantage throughout the playoffs are just two of the things at stake in Sunday's contest. And whether the players acknowledge it or not, Tampa Bay's game against Green Bay has all of the makings of another classic Battle of the Bays showdown.

"It's a phenomenal situation," said Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice. "Clash of the titans, 8-2 teams, both at the top of the NFC and it's a situation that both teams relish. Both teams want to capitalize on this. It's going to be an enjoyable occasion this Sunday. What could be better? It's a prelude of things to come. I think in the weeks prior we really set the stage for this to be really special, and something that a lot of football fans want to see. Our defense against their offense. Brett Favre against our defense, that whole thing. It is going to be a joy to be there, a joy to play, and a joy to watch."

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All photos are courtesy of Pewter Report director of photography Cliff Welch unless otherwise noted.

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