Packers are well-grounded in how to weather playoffs They're in rush to repeat, but Bucs can run ball, too

January 04, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

If the Green Bay Packers follow their Super Bowl formula of a year ago, they will hit the tundra running today against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in an NFC divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field.

The ground game is always big in January at Lambeau, where any combination of wintry elements threatens to suck the life out of an offense.

But the outcome of this playoff game figures to revolve around the run and the weather conditions.

The Packers played to the elements in their march to Super Bowl XXXI last season. They threw the ball 54 percent of their snaps in the regular season, then ran it 63 percent of the time in three postseason games, two of them at frosty Lambeau.

This season, they have a better running game in place. With Dorsey Levens pounding for 1,435 yards, they totaled the most rushing yards (1,909) in Mike Holmgren's six years as coach.

Given bad enough weather conditions, it's conceivable Round 3 of the Battle of the Bays will come down to a battle of running backs -- Levens against the Bucs' tag-team tandem of tailback Warrick Dunn and fullback Mike Alstott.

That's where things could get sticky for the defending Super Bowl champs, who swept the season series from the Bucs.

Virtually impenetrable in 1996, the Packers' defense has been gouged for eight 100-yard rushing games by six different backs this season. Among the damage was a 125-yard effort by Dunn in Green Bay's 21-16 win at Lambeau in Week 6.

Alstott added 56 yards that day, and the Bucs rushed for a total of 217, the most given up by the Packers this season.

In a Week 15 rematch in Tampa, though, the Packers held Dunn and Alstott to a total of 67 rushing yards to win, 17-6.

"The first game, we didn't tackle very well," Holmgren said. "Early in the season, we didn't tackle very well. We were more focused, moving around better on defense after the bye, for whatever reason. As a result, we haven't had that type back gash us like he did early in the season."

The Packers (13-3) gave up five individual 100-yard rushing games in the first seven weeks of the season. Since their bye week, they've given up three in the past nine games.

What will help today is the return of 350-pound nose tackle Gilbert Brown, who has missed four games with ankle, knee and hip injuries, and sat out the last two to heal.

The Bucs (11-6), meanwhile, were built for this kind of power game -- hammer the ball inside, play rugged defense. Like Alstott, the 5-foot-8 Dunn can run inside the tackles. Tampa Bay's defense, led by middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, defensive tackle Warren Sapp and defensive end Chidi Ahanotu, is ranked third in the NFL.

But there is the problem of cold weather. The Bucs are 0-16 when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, and forecasts call for sub-freezing temperatures today. Much has been made LTC of Tampa Bay's cold-weather ills.

"We're going to check the weather charts and if it's going to be below 40, we're probably just going to go ahead and forfeit," cracked Bucs coach Tony Dungy last week.

Dungy has licked tougher odds, getting the Bucs to their first postseason appearance in 15 years and their first playoff win in 18 years.

While the Bucs were beating the Detroit Lions, 20-10, in the wild-card round last week, the Packers were home enjoying a first-round bye.

"Tony has them believing in themselves right now," Holmgren said. "I like to tell my team, the weather will not determine the outcome of the game. They [the Bucs] are a good team, they deserve to be in this game. We're a good team, and we deserve to have the game at home."

The Packers are 14-point favorites because the game is at

Lambeau, where they've won 26 consecutive games, because they have a huge advantage with five straight playoff seasons, and because of the quarterback matchup: MVP Brett Favre against Tampa Bay's lightly regarded Trent Dilfer.

Favre threw for 35 touchdowns and 3,867 yards this season and shared his third straight MVP award with Detroit's Barry Sanders. In two victories over the Bucs, Favre completed 71.9 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and 471 yards. His performance outclassed Dilfer, who completed 47.8 percent for 246 yards and one interception against the Packers.

That contrast may be the biggest difference between the two teams, and lends itself to an air of invincibility in Green Bay.

"When your quarterback is the MVP of the league and continues to be the MVP of the league, certainly you feel good about that situation," Holmgren said. "And you almost kind of feel he won't let you lose and he will just not let the team lose.

"And that always gives a coach a good feeling. You know, he's the best player in football right now. And if he's on your side, it always feels good."

Running on the Packers

The Packers surrendered eight individual 100-yard rushing games this season:

Wk. Player, team ........ Att. Yards TDs Result

Raymont Harris, Bears .. 13 .. 122.. 2 Packers, 38-24

4 Robert Smith, Vikings .. 28 .. 132.. 1 Packers, 38-32

5 Barry Sanders, Lions ... 28 .. 139.. 0 Lions, 26-15

6 Warrick Dunn, Bucs ..... 16 .. 125.. 1 Packers, 21-16

7 Raymont Harris, Bears .. 27 .. 101.. 1 Packers, 24-23

10 Barry Sanders, Lions .. 25 .. 105.. 0 Packers, 20-10

12 Marshall Faulk, Colts.. 17 .. 116.. 0 Colts, 41-38

16 Fred Lane, Panthers ... 19 .. 119.. 1 Packers, 31-10

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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