I actually heard some analysts say last week that if the Packers
had clinched the NFC North on Sunday, becoming the earliest team
to wrap up a playoff spot since the league went to a 16-game
schedule in 1978, it would have been the worst thing that could
have happened to them. Why? Because the Packers would have lost
their edge, malaise would have set in, the deck chairs and
sunglasses would have come out.
But after a loss to the Vikings proved that the they were mortal
and kept their division lead at a nerve-racking five games, the
Packers are ready to take on their most serious opponent of the
year, Tampa Bay. The Bucs don't have to worry about clinching too
early. They're in a three-way fight with the Saints and the
Falcons in the NFC South.
Recent history has seen some lively battles between Green Bay and
Tampa Bay when they were both in the NFC Central and met twice a
year. It's been a little like a morality play, with the leading
actors unchanged for the past seven years or so--Brett Favre
versus the Demons of Defense, featuring Warren Sapp, Derrick
Brooks and John Lynch. And for the past four years the story line
has been the same: The Packers win at Lambeau but lose at Raymond
James, which is the venue this Sunday.
The losses in Tampa have been particularly hard on Favre. Four
years ago the Bucs sacked him eight times. Over the past three
years he has thrown five interceptions, including three in last
season's defeat in which he drove his team to the Bucs'
eight-yard line as the clock ran out.
Green Bay, which has done a remarkable job of fighting through
injuries, got its wake-up call against the Vikings. The Panthers,
with all the problems they've had, played Tampa Bay even for
almost three quarters, finally collapsing under the weight of
four turnovers. It could be that the Packers and the Bucs were
looking ahead. I think they'll both try to run the ball, trading
body blows for a while. Minnesota ran for 218 yards on Green Bay.
Under a heavy rush, Favre will still get his yards, but he'll
have to work for them. Logic says the Pack has more firepower,
but I'm riding with Tampa Bay and that home field edge.
It was a scary day for quarterbacks on Sunday, and now Denver
sends out 37-year-old Steve Beuerlein against the Colts;
Pittsburgh gets a second go-round from Kordell Stewart, this time
against Cincinnati; and Philadelphia goes with Koy Detmer against
the 49ers. The Broncos will win on the ground, the Steelers will
win on memory, but the Eagles? They're going to have to rally
around Detmer, who, believe it or not, has been an Eagle for six
years, and raise the level of their play on defense and in the
running game. I think they'll do it eventually, but not on the
road against a playoff-caliber team in a Monday nighter. The
Niners will take it.
Ride the hot teams. The Titans extend their winning streak to
six, against the Ravens. The Giants get their fourth in a row, at
Houston. The Falcons make it seven straight without a loss, in
Carolina. And the Jets, who are shooting for their fourth in a
row, at home against the Bills? Well, that's where it ends. The
Bills avenge an opening-day overtime loss to their division
San Diego will be looking ahead to Denver, and Miami will be
looking ahead to Buffalo. I say this will be a turnover game. The
Chargers, who abandoned the soft defensive approach that cost
them two games and returned to a blitz package in an overtime win
over the 49ers, will make things tough for quarterback Ray Lucas.
But Miami will put even more pressure on San Diego's banged-up
offensive line. The Dolphins take it.
The Jaguars will win in Dallas. The Chiefs, with Priest Holmes
piling up about 200 yards rushing and receiving, will beat
Seattle, and the Rams, with the quarterback situation still a
subject of lively debate, will top the Redskins. --Paul Zimmerman
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COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Sapp will have plenty of reason to crow after a fifth straightvictory over the Packers in Tampa.