The 5-5 Green Bay Packers have had what it takes to be winners only half the time this season. Sunday at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium was one of those times, thanks to a drive which contained all the elements that make a winner.
Earlier in the second half, the Packers didn't look like they were in a victorious frame of mind.
Tampa Bay took the opening drive of the second half all the way for a game-tying touchdown. That erased a 13-3 Green Bay lead that should have been bigger, but the Packers were unable to pounce opportunities handed them by Bucs' mistakes. A few minutes after achieving the tie, the Buccaneers came up with their only takeaway and set up shop at midfield. As the Bucs followed up Travaris Robinson's pick with gains of nine and eight yards on their first two plays, the Packers teetered on the brink of self-destruction.
Tampa Bay then gave the Packers another assist. The Bucs were flagged for a personal foul facemask violation which erased an 11-yard reception and sent them back into their own territory. This time, the Packers didn't let an opportunity to capitalize on a mistake slip away.
The Green Bay defense, which erased some of the doubt it has created this season, rose to the occasion and denied Brad Johnson and his receivers on back-to-back pass plays. Forced to punt, Tom Tupa pinned the Packers back at their own 3. A holding call against Darren Sharper put the ball back half the distance: First and 10 at the 1 ½.
Then, something special slowly began to materialize. Here's a breakdown of the drive that buried the Bucs:
At first, it was truly a case of one step forward, two steps back.
1-and-10 on GB 2, 3:36 remaining in the third quarter: Ahman Green is stuffed at the line of scrimmage for a 1-yard loss by Ronde Barber and John Lynch. Bucs are thinking "safety."
2-11 on GB 1: Green up the middle for 5 yards, stopped again by Barber and Lynch.
3-6 on GB 6: False start call against center Mike Flanagan, costing the Packers three of Green's hard-earned yards.
3-9 on GB 3: Favre, out of the shotgun from deep in his own end zone, fires complete to Robert Ferguson over the middle in a parted sea of red for 23 yards. This is easily the play of the game, speaking volumes about Favre's steely reserve even one step away from disaster with a thumb injury and Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice breathing down his neck.
Next up in the "never-give-up" spotlight, Najeh Davenport.
1-10 GB 26: Davenport catches a shovel pass from Favre (hey, it worked for a touchdown to Tony Fisher in the first half) but can't shake Derrick Brooks and is stopped for a gain of just one yard.
2-9 GB 27: Davenport follows Mike Wahle's block for a 7 yard gain to end the third quarter. When the Packers come back from the break, they face yet another key play in the drive.
3-2 GB 34: Green again goes left, getting more than enough for the first.
1-10 GB 37: Another down, another back, another direction. Davenport goes outside right, finds a hole and charges 27 yards into Tampa territory to change the complexion of the drive.
1-10 TB 36: Incomplete pass, intended for Javon Walker, thrown behind him.
2-10 TB 36: Tony Fisher goes left, but gets only 2 yards. The Packers face third and long. Instead of worrying about giving the Bucs the ball back in good field position, Green Bay is now trying to avoid their first-half pitfall of blown scoring opportunities.
3-8 TB 34: Déjà vu? Out of the shotgun, Favre finds Ferguson for 9 yards and now the Packers are out of the woods and heading into the red zone.
An attempt to grind it out the rest of the way almost falls short.
1-10 TB 25: Green goes right end for 8 yards.
2-2 TB 17: Davenport up middle, no gain.
3-2 TB 17: Favre's short pass to Driver on the sideline is designed to slip past the marker, but Barber remains a thorn in the Packers' side, pushing Driver out of bounds about a yard short.
Gut-check time: The Packers decide to go for it on fourth down. Coming up short means handing the ball back to Tampa in a tie game, and coming away empty from an already impressive drive.
"It was such a beautiful drive, I just hated to let it go to a kicker. I thought we had to finish it off," Sherman said.
4-1 TB 16: Green Bay keeps it simple. Davenport bulldozes up the middle, first securing the first down, then churning for a 5-yard gain. Calling a fourth-down conversion a key to the drive is too obvious, but this play goes deeper than that. Winning teams, those which display confidence in themselves and inspire doubt or fear in the opposition, simply have to be able to gain a yard when they need one. Green Bay proved they can be what Mike Ditka called "smash mouth" rather than what Chris Hovan called "finesse."
"I think everyone, including some of our players, expected us to kick a field goal," said Favre. "But we just wanted to make a statement at that point, and I think we did."
Then it was time to grind it out.
1-10 TB 11: Davenport right for 7 yards.
2-3 TB 4: Fisher takes it up the middle for 3 yards, short of the goal line but enough for the first down. Green Bay has put 97 ½ yards of green behind them and has four shots at the end zone.
1-G TB 1: Green finds a hole sprung by right guard Marco Rivera and charges in for the touchdown with 8:47 remaining. Ryan Longwell added the PAT, and thus the Packers' best work of 2003 so far is complete.
The drive covered 98 ½ yards in 17 plays, powered by four third down conversions and one fourth-down conversion. The march bridged the third and fourth quarters by consuming 9 minutes and 42 seconds. More importantly for the Packers, it consumed the Buccaneers' momentum. The proof is in the stats for the rest of the game. Tampa Bay got the ball back with 8:47 to go. Trailing by a single TD at home against an inconsistent defense, that's hardly a big deal for a defending Super Bowl champ, right? Wrong. The Bucs went 3-and-out on its next two series. Their final series was ended after three Johnson passes by Darren Sharper's game-sealing interception. Before a desperation pass on the final set, Tampa gained 13 yards on two series combined.
"Huge – that was huge," Sharper said of the drive. "Whenever we give our offense the ball, they move it. We knew they would."