Pack homes in on Bucs Green Bay returns to NFC Central chase, hands Tampa 1st loss

October 06, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The head of the NFL champions lies uneasy today, but, as the Green Bay Packers proved yesterday, the heart is working just fine.

Invoking their Lambeau Field advantage, the Packers halted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' momentum -- temporarily, at least -- with a 21-16 victory that was as shaky as Green Bay's fourth-quarter defense.

The ultimate winner in the Battle of the Bays may not be decided until Dec. 7, when these teams meet again in Tampa. But for now, the Packers can take solace in dealing the Bucs (5-1) their first loss of 1997 and staying alive in the NFC Central race at 4-2.

"All championship teams from the Bulls to the Cowboys can relate to what we're going through," Antonio Freeman said after the Packers passed their latest must-win test.

"We're defending champs and we're not blowing teams out. [But] you never doubt the heart of a champion. You never do."

The Packers won on pride and a 21-point second quarter when Tampa Bay committed two turnovers and looked like the Bucs of old.

Freeman played a starring role in Green Bay's reprieve with a pair of touchdown catches. But the play that turned the game around was as unlikely as Tampa Bay arriving in Week 6 with an NFC-best, 5-0 record.

Packers defensive end Gabe Wilkins picked off an errant Trent Dilfer screen pass and raced 77 yards to the end zone. He then attempted the traditional leap into the Lambeau stands, but slipped on the narrow strip of carpet at the wall and fell flat.

"I tried to jump, but I lost it a little," Wilkins said.

The Packers will forgive him -- once they harass him for messing up the tradition. After Wilkins' touchdown handed the Packers a 14-3 lead, quarterback Brett Favre said he "could've gone out and given him a big kiss."

That's because Wilkins' interception immediately followed a Favre fumble inside the Green Bay 20. As mood swings go, this was huge.

"As far as you can swing," Favre said. "You fumble the ball on a quarterback sneak and on the next play your defensive lineman intercepts it and looks like O.J. [Simpson] running through the airport.

"I thought I was down on the fumble [a third-down plunge], but they said I was on top of a Tampa player and apparently that means you're not down."

Wilkins speared a pass intended for Mike Alstott, then hurdled a diving Dilfer at the 25-yard line. A pass rush by tackle Santana Dotson had forced a hurried throw by Dilfer, who sent the ball right to Wilkins.

"The ball was right there in my face," he said. "Usually, quarterbacks will try to cut you [tackle low], so I thought 'If I get in the air and get past him, nobody was left.' I didn't know it was that far."

After Freeman recorded his second touchdown catch in the final 44 seconds of the half, the Packers spent the rest of the game holding off the Buccaneers. It was neither easy nor pretty.

The Bucs staged second-half scoring drives of 63 and 90 yards to get back in the game. Much of their thrust came from rookie running back Warrick Dunn, who, with 125 yards, became the fourth runner to go over 100 yards this season against the Packers' once-impregnable defense.

Dunn and Alstott generated 217 rushing yards for the Bucs, who handily won most of the statistical battles. They had 10 more first downs, 138 more total yards and nearly a 10-minute advantage in time of possession.

"Dunn's a great runner," Wilkins said. "And the Bucs have a great attitude about where they're going. They think they can go to the Super Bowl. I take my hat off to them.

"But at the same time, we're the Packers. We're trying to build a tradition here by not losing at home, and we're going to build on that."

The count is 22 straight wins at Lambeau Field for the Packers, who last lost here in the 1995 season opener. Yesterday, the Packers were playing without a number of regular starers, including run-stuffing nose tackle Gilbert Brown.

"Statistics are pretty and everybody likes to have them," Packers defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur said. "And they are an indicator of how you're playing. But all you're really trying to do is win the game."

After Alstott's 1-yard touchdown dive in the third quarter and Dunn's tough, 2-yard inside run in the fourth, the Bucs' deficit was 21-16. They tried to get it to three points with a two-point conversion, but Dilfer's pass was short of intended receiver Horace Copeland in the end zone.

It was up to the Tampa Bay defense to get the ball back. And it did, twice. But the first series ended with a fourth-down incompletion that bounced off Dunn's shoulder pads with 1: 47 left.

After expending their third and final timeout on defense, the Bucs got the ball back with 38 seconds left at their 20. They managed just two passes, and when Brian Williams and Dotson smothered Dunn on a screen pass, the clock ran out.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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