Green Bay vs. the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers with identical records as things heat up in Week 11: Sunday's scenario would have been believable even before the 2003 season began. After all, these same rivals had matching 8-2 marks when they clashed en route to division titles in 2002.
What it hard to fathom is that this time, those identical records would be below .500 and the Packers and Bucs would be struggling for their playoff lives. Both teams shared an unfortunate fate last weekend, losing key games that would have vastly improved their playoff possibilities. Tampa fell to NFC South leading Carolina, while the Packers blew a golden opportunity to gain a game on the faltering Vikings in the NFC North by losing to Philadelphia at home.
Sunday's meeting between the Packers and Bucs is far from meaningless, however. Green Bay is a perennial second-half powerhouse. The last time they had a 4-5 start – Mike Sherman's inaugural season of 2000 - the Packers finished up strong at 9-7. This time they face a less-than-grueling schedule the rest of the way. Of the Pack's remaining opponents, only Denver (5-4) has a winning record. Since 1990, teams have rallied from 4-5 starts to finish above .500 and make the playoffs on a pace of about one per year – no reason the Packers can't be that team in 2003.
No matter how positive the outlook may be, nothing can change the fact that the Packers have unexpectedly found themselves a long shot from where they thought they'd be with seven games remaining.
We're not out of it, but we are digging a hole," quarterback Brett Favre said. "We're running out of games."
Ordinarily, a guy with a cracked thumb on his throwing hand might be counting the games from the bench. But with his offensive line back from an injury-plagued 2002 season, and with a running game that's rewriting the record books, Favre isn't about to sit down.
Neither is Ahman Green, who definitely doesn't want his amazing season remembered as the one that ended without playoff payoff.
"Nothing's over until the season over," Green said. "We don't know where we're going to end up at until the end of December. That's where we're at right now. Right now it's a one-game season for most teams in the NFL. You just have to take it one game at a time. Some games are going to go great for you, some games are not, but what you have to do is correct the mistakes and never look back."
The Bucs' uphill climb is a bit more precarious. With last week's loss, they fell three games behind the Panthers, and kissed the tiebreaker goodbye. That means that they'd have to gain four games on Carolina over the next seven weeks.
They might like their chances at Raymond James Stadium vs. a smarting Green Bay squad, but they are rightfully wary of a Favre-led offense – regardless of the records.
"Obviously Green Bay presents a fair amount of challenge," said Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden. "They have a great quarterback, outstanding skilled people."