The Buccaneers are the long-lost orphans of the old NFC Central division. Young Packer fans have no recollection of a time in which Green Bay invited Warren Sapp to stomp around Lambeau once a year.  They don’t remember being just barely better than the Buccaneers in the 1970’s (of course, neither do I, thank God) when their brown-paper-bag-wearing shenanigans were at their peak. I, for one, think that’s a shame.

Speaking as one of those trendy 90’s Packer fans, watching Favre play against Sapp was the highlight of the year–at least when the Bears weren’t any good. I’ve told the stories of an unflinching Favre standing toe-to-toe with the NFL’s best defensive tackle to more than one bored party guest when I’ve had a few too many–and I know I’m not the only one. As a kid, that had to be one of football’s defining moments for me. Favre had no fear–he had pads and teammates–but no fear at all. What bully could I not stand up to if Favre was willing to fight someone 100 lbs. bigger than him?

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Those days are long gone, now. The Buccaneers have moved to the NFC South and now regularly face teams that are actually in a similar area. I guess it’s fair that they don’t have to come up here to the frozen tundra from temperate Florida in December. But, if you don’t get a little frostbite, is it still football?

They’ve had their share of success since then, including a Super Bowl victory with the ol’ football coach, Jon Gruden. But, it will be a long time before the rivalries between them and their division opponents approach that of NFC Central potential. To this day, the members of the NFC North have all had twice as many games against the Bucs than any of their current division opponents. It doesn’t mean much, but it means something.

That’s why it is my great privilege to look back at a couple of games that were played at the height of our rivalry. It is a matchup that has long since stopped being primetime entertainment–though it looked like it might be this year, time and collarbones make fools of us all. Still, this game is big for both clubs. Tampa is looking to improve their record to something respectable after having a nightmare season…and Green Bay is doing the exact same thing. It’s just we are doing it while the world’s only actual super man is doing push-ups and throwing 60 yard bombs on the sidelines because somebody* forgot he was an alien. Stupid freaking IR rules.

*I’m not actually sure who makes these decisions. I still blame Ted.

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Green Bay Packers at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Week 1

September 1st, 1996

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Yes, there were games against Tampa Bay that Green Bay lost. No, I will not be going over any of that–too much of it is going around already. This game was fun, damn it.

Green Bay came in as a juggernaut on the way to their first title in decades. For Tampa, it was their opportunity to make a name for themselves. It was legendary coach Tony Dungy’s first game as the head coach and he knew he had to take the division’s leader head on. Unfortunately for Dungy, it would take some time before he would make any progress with them. This game was all about Favre.

Brett was efficient and masterful, going 20/27 and 247 yards with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. This Brett Favre was the best in the world, this is the one that got to meet the guy from the Karate Kid just because he was around. Unfortunately for Brett, Warren Sapp was very aware of this and had made it his personal mission to bring him low…or at least get in his head.

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Favre remembers pouring it on the Buccaneers in this matchup as much as he remembers how Warren Sapp got his hands on him every play. In this video, Favre and Sapp discuss this and other games like they were old friends.

(I would like to take this moment and remind everyone that Sapp is likely a sex criminal and once hospitalized Chad Clifton for a week on a play that Mike Sherman called “chickenshit”. That’s the worst thing Sherman ever said about anybody. Surprising no one, Sapp challenged Sherman to a fight and called him a “lying, shit-eating hound”. Apparently they played that game during an unaired episode of The Trailer Park Boys.)

The whole relationship was a boon for Favre’s football credibility. He played well under duress and made Sapp eat his words. But, most importantly, he welcomed the challenge. At a time when the position was getting softer, Favre seemed to be getting tougher. For all of Sapp’s antics and antagonizing, Favre never stopped showing up and he usually got the best of him.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Green Bay Packers

Divisional Playoffs

January 4th, 1998

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This is the one: the biggest, most important game between the two franchises. It’s the only playoff game played between the two teams and it represents a changing-of-the-guard in the NFC. The Packers were to go on and lose the Super Bowl as heavy favorites and never go back until 2010. The Buccaneers were building up their defense and were ready to go on their first championship run just a few years later.

This game was a clash of defenses, to be sure. The Packers still had the major pieces of their imposing championship defense and used them to great effect against a young Trent Dilfer who threw two picks and no touchdowns. When Dilfer doesn’t score any points, it’s not exactly news. The real conflict was between the offense of the Packers and the defense of the Buccaneers. Both units were ranked second overall in their respective categories and it was a clash of the titans.

The Pack had the advantage, early. Dominating the first half and building a 13-0 lead. But, Sapp and his defense were not going to be foiled so easily. Like any great villain, they were able to threaten just enough to make this a great game. In the 3rd quarter, Tampa was able to score on a Mike Alstott run–a true legend in his own right–and bring them within 6 points of the defending champs.

The score came right on the heels of a patented Favre interception. Their offense was still lackluster, but Dilfer managed to hit Reidel Anthony for a 52-yard pass and Alstott did the rest. The following drive, Sapp forced a 3-and-out with a sack on Favre and we had a game. Could the upstart Buccaneers really oust the defending champs?

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Dilfer and the offense sputtered on the possible go-ahead drive. They went 3-and-out, themselves, aided by two incompletions from Dilfer and a bizarre 18-yard penalty for illegal motion. Following a punt, the Packers put together a tough drive that weathered two sacks (another by Sapp) and a couple 3rd downs. Favre was able to hit receivers on both and Dorsey Levens finished the job with a few very strong runs.

What a game, though. And what a rivalry. I could write about the games between these two teams forever. There are few sport relationships that actually deliver on the promises given in professional wrestling–but this is one. In one corner, the heel–in the other, the everyman. Which is which? The crowd must decide.