Bring on the Buccaneers!

CHARLOTTE – Through three games, Green Bay's numbers are looking pretty good: 28-37-28.

Anyway you look at it, the Packers are 3-0 and have gathered the necessary momentum for their showdown Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Are the Packers for real?

Neither a slow start against Carolina after an emotional Monday night victory, nor an early deficit, nor turnovers, penalties and a field that resembled a tilled garden made a difference to Green Bay on Sunday.

The Packers shook off their sluggish start against the upstart Panthers, capitalized on two turnovers early in the second half and cruised to a 28-7 victory before a sun-drenched crowd of 67,417 at Ericsson Stadium.

Green Bay won its seventh straight game dating back to last Nov. 27 when they were blown out on Monday Night Football, 31-14, by the Panthers on the same, but much better conditioned field. Now they take their show to Tampa against the Buccaneers, who were upset by Minnesota, 20-16, Sunday in Minneapolis. The Bucs have been picked by many to win the NFC's Central Division this season and win the Super Bowl and have never lost to Green Bay at Raymond James.

The Packers, however, have scored 93 points in three games and allowed just one touchdown, but the victories have come against teams with a combined record of 1-7.

"I've been on some very good football teams and we haven't been able to do this but maybe once," said Packers quarterback Brett Favre. "I remember one season (1998) we came here and we were 4-0 after we left. Our season ended up, I think we lost in the first round of the playoffs. I'm sure after that game we felt we were unstoppable. No one's unstoppable in this league, anything can happen. But you definitely give yourself a chance when you go 3-0 and you win the way we've won these football games."

Favre overcame two early interceptions and threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns to three different receivers. Green Bay's defense again was impressive. The Packers held the Panthers to 60 total yards in the second half. Carolina (1-2) finished with 169 total yards and the Packers increased their season sack total to 15. Green Bay led the league with 12 sacks entering the game.

On this day, it was special teams that helped turn the momentum in the Packers' favor. Green Bay capitalized on Carolina rookie return specialist Steve Smith's consecutive fumbles on kickoff returns at the start the third quarter and took control of the game by scoring touchdowns after each Panthers' miscue.

"I can't say enough about (special teams)," said Packers coach/GM Mike Sherman. "On Wednesday I got after them a little bit about what they did not do in the last game. We worked on that every day. I take my hat off to (special teams coach) Frank Novak for getting the players ready. Those players who were on the kickoff coverage team did a great job and forced those two turnovers."

Antuan Edwards recovered Smith's first fumble at Carolina's 37 and Favre took over by dissecting Carolina's secondary. Favre passed for seven yards to wide receiver Bill Schroeder for a first down at the 33. A few plays later, he hit tight end Bubba Franks over the middle for a 12-yard completion to the 12. On the next play, Favre found Schroeder open just inside the back of the end zone. Favre then capped the drive with a two-point conversion pass to wide receiver Antonio Freeman for a 14-7 lead.

"We ran it in practice, and it was a little bit tricky out there," Schroeder said. "It was a good pass and I got my toes in, and it was good for a touchdown."

Green Bay got the ball back again on the ensuing kickoff when Herbert Goodman jarred the ball loose from Smith. K.D. Williams recovered at the Panthers' 38 and the Packers were in business again.

Favre's 18-yard pass to running back Ahman Green to the Panthers' 8 yard line keyed the drive. A few plays later, Favre appeared as if he was going to run the ball into the left side of the end zone from the 6 but elected at the last second to pass to Franks for a touchdown with 8:30 left in the quarter.

"Maybe I could have run it in, I don't know. The guys on the sideline said I was trying to boost my rating," Favre said. "That's the last thing ... I was tired, I was stumbling and I figured, 'Bubba has a better chance of scoring than I do.' "

Green Bay's defense, ranked second in the league entering the game, took over from there. The Packers forced the Panthers to punt on their next two possessions. Favre put the game away for good early in the fourth quarter with a 5-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Corey Bradford.

After Packers cornerback Tyrone Williams picked off a pass thrown by Chris Weinke midway through the fourth quarter, the majority of Panthers fans began filing for the exits as the thousands of Packers fans in attendance chanted loud and clear: "Go Pack Go!"

That wasn't the case early on, however. Unlike the turf, the Packers started out shaky but progressively improved. Favre threw two interceptions in the first half, the Packers were penalized four times and trailed 7-6 at halftime.

The Panthers snapped Green Bay's string of quarters without allowing a touchdown at nine when tight end Wesley Walls got open for a 3-yard touchdown catch early in the second quarter. Walls caught passes of 16 and 11 yards in the drive to set up the score, giving the Panthers a 7-0 lead.

Carolina nearly scored again after safety Deon Grant intercepted a pass from Favre on the first play of the ensuing series. Weinke threw a 27-yard pass to Panthers' leading receiver Mushin Muhammad for a touchdown, but the score was nullified by a holding penalty. Green Bay's defense regrouped to hold the Panthers from scoring, though, the Packers got lucky when Muhammad dropped a pass for a first down on 4th-and-14.

Green Bay then marched 45 yards and got on the board when Ryan Longwell made a 42-yard field goal with 8:26 left in the second quarter.

Longwell, despite the clumpy turf, came through again by drilling a 46-yard attempt through the uprights after a Packers drive stalled at the 28 late in the second quarter.

"We didn't play very well the first half offensively, but it was a close game and we needed to be in a close game," said Sherman. "So far this season, things have been lopsided going into the second half and we did not have that lead that we've had the past two weeks."

Green, who got off to a blazing start with 267 yards rushing in Green Bay's first two games, was held to 53 on 19 carries by the Panthers. The Packers had a total of 75 yards rushing and played without Dorsey Levens, who sat out with a bruised back.

"They were just being aggressive," said Green of the Panthers' defense in the first half. "Their linebackers were playing downhill as we were with our O-linemen. Nothing was given."


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