The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took another step toward their first NFC Central Division title since 1981 today with a dominating 29-10 victory over Green Bay that left the Packers, a longtime nemesis, sniping at each other and needing significant help to get into the playoffs.
The Bucs were assured of a playoff berth before today's 4:15 p.m. kickoff because the Carolina Panthers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this afternoon. Now 10-5, and one game ahead of the Minnesota Vikings, the Bucs will win the division and get a first-round playoff bye if they defeat the Bears in Chicago this week.
The Packers, a Super Bowl championship team three years ago, are 7-8 but can get into the playoffs if they win at home next week against the Arizona Cardinals and the Dallas Cowboys lose at home to the New York Giants. If Dallas wins, it will get the final wild-card spot.
Tampa Bay's 260-pound running back Mike Alstott scored on fourth-quarter runs of five and 17 yards, and the Bucs forced four turnovers, including two interceptions and a fumble recovery by safety Damien Robinson. That enabled them to atone for a 45-0 loss to the Oakland Raiders last week, the worst defeat in team history.
Today's win was among the sweetest in club history, a team-record seventh at home. Rookie quarterback Shaun King continued to show remarkable poise and patience, completing 17 of 30 passes for 133 yards and a touchdown for his third victory in four starts. And rookie place kicker Martin Gramatica made field goals of 49, 28 and 33 yards, tying a club record with 25 field goals for the season.
"It's great to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneer," said King, who grew up in nearby St. Petersburg as a lifetime Bucs fan. "We forgot about that Oakland game as soon as we got off the plane. This just shows the difference when you're really focused on what you're trying to do."
The Bucs will need to remain focused next week against the Bears. If they and Minnesota tie with 10-6 records, the Vikings, who play at home against the Detroit Lions, will win the Central Division by virtue of a better conference record.
Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, who came into this game with a 13-2 career record against the Bucs, was mostly awful today. He forced passes into double and triple coverage, completing only 25 of 48 passes. The Packers also had no running game, and their receivers dropped at least five catchable balls.
"It's ironic that we [clinched a playoff berth and kept control of the division race] today against a team we've been chasing for a long time," said Buccaneers defensive end Warren Sapp. Tampa Bay Coach Tony Dungy "is always saying, 'We've got to catch them, we've got to catch them.' It was nice to throw them in the grave and drop some dirt on 'em."
Packers veteran safety LeRoy Butler intimated that some teammates were somnolent throughout a game in which Green Bay led 10-9 at halftime.
"Some of us fought, some of us didn't," Butler said. "It should have been closer, but we just gave it to them. We just died, like we have the last three weeks [all losses]. It's nothing you can coach. Some guys on this team are just not tough enough. We can't act scared."
The Buccaneers acted confident from the start, opening an early 9-0 lead on Gramatica's kicks. Still, they were upset at halftime for having not gotten more points on those three possessions, and allowing the Packers to go ahead on Favre's 20-yard screen pass to Dorsey Levens with 21 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
But the second half was mostly no contest, courtesy of a Tampa Bay defense that has been the team's strength all year. On Green Bay's second possession of the third period, linebacker Hardy Nickerson forced a fumble with a jarring hit on wide receiver Bill Schroeder. Robinson recovered at the Green Bay 23.
Five plays later, on second and eight from the Green Bay 8, running back Warrick Dunn slipped out of the backfield and caught a short pass from King at the 5. He outraced linebacker June Waddy to the end zone for a 16-10 lead with 8 minutes 35 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Packers didn't cross midfield on their next two possessions, and the Buccaneers took control with a 13-play, 63-yard drive that lasted 7:05. Alstott finished it with a five-yard touchdown run off right tackle. The Bucs went for a two-point conversion, but King's pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage, leaving the score at 22-10.
No matter. Robinson, who also caught a pass on a fake punt to set up a first-quarter field goal, got his second interception of the game on a pass intended for wide receiver Antonio Freeman, who was not a factor today. Robinson's 36-yard return gave Tampa Bay possession at the Packers 28. Four plays later, Alstott went off tackle from the 17, faked out Butler at the 5 and scored with 4:41 remaining.
"We have a lot to do yet," Alstott said. "We took what happened to us last week to heart and we didn't want it to happen again. Now, we've got to finish this thing off the right way next week."