The race is back!
Nov. 20, 2002 8:35 p.m.
GAME: Green Bay Packers (8-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-2).
Stats Inc. matchup
TIME/TV: 4 p.m. ET, FOX
ODDS: Bucs by 3
WEATHER: Sunny, 72
Over their last few seasons in the now-defunct NFC Central, the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers developed a lively rivalry.
With an NFC North title and possibly home-field advantage in the playoffs at stake, passions should again be high as the NFL's top teams meet for the first time since being sent to separate divisions.
In four of the NFC Central's final five seasons, Green Bay and Tampa Bay finished in the top three.
It seemed each game between the teams over that span was critical, and, despite an offseason realignment that did away with the NFC Central, a letdown in competitiveness is not expected for Sunday's matchup.
Green Bay can clinch the NFC North with a win and a Minnesota Vikings loss or tie against the New England Patriots on Sunday. With a win, Tampa Bay, off to the best start in its history, will maintain sole possession of first place in the NFC South. With the teams tied for the NFL's best record, Sunday's winner also gets an advantage in the race for home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.
The Packers, though, may be without two key offensive players and are seeking their first win in five tries at Raymond James Stadium.
Rookie running back Najeh Davenport, who backs up Ahman Green and fullback William Henderson, won't play against the Buccaneers and might need season-ending surgery on his broken left eye socket. Davenport was hurt on the opening kickoff return in the Packers' 31-21 loss to the Vikings on Sunday.
Right guard Marco Rivera, meanwhile, sprained his right knee in the first offensive series. The Packers' ground game sputtered, with Green amassing just 71 yards on 18 carries.
Rivera's status for Sunday's game is uncertain.
Tampa Bay took control of the NFC South Sunday with a 23-10 win over the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints losing 24-17 to the Atlanta Falcons.
"People have been here 27 years and have never seen 8-2. That makes it sweet," Buccaneers safety John Lynch said. "I've been here 10 years and have never sniffed it. ... This is sweet, but we have a lot of unfinished business."
The Buccaneers, however, could be without their top cornerback, as Ronde Barber had surgery Monday on his broken left thumb. Barber was injured during the third quarter Sunday, but did not leave the game. X-rays revealed a break, and Tampa Bay is hoping he can be fitted with some sort of protective cast or padding that will allow him to play.
If Barber can't play, second-year pro Dwight Smith will take over his spot at right cornerback. Smith, primarily a nickel back, had an interception and forced a fumble in the win over the Panthers.
"If Ronde's got a chance, he'll be out there," Lynch said. "That's the way that guy is."
Barber was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler for the first time last season when he tied Cleveland's Anthony Henry for the NFL lead in interceptions with 10.
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