Fighting for home
Both teams know no NFC wild card has reached the Super Bowl in the current format.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002
TAMPA -- The survival instinct of the NFL tells you never to peer past the game at hand. But the Bucs do not have to look beyond their sorry playoff history to know what could be at stake in today's Battle of the Bays.
Tampa Bay never has won a playoff game on the road, or scored a postseason touchdown on enemy turf for that matter. In addition to securing the league's best record, to the victor of today's Bucs-Packers game may go the spoils of homefield advantage.
"We want the (playoff) bye," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "We aren't trying for no wild card. We want the easiest road we can get. Two games and a bye."
Johnson isn't alone. The rest of the NFC will be cheering for the Bucs, knowing there's not a snowball's chance in Tampa Bay of getting to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego if they have to go through the frozen tundra at Lambeau Field.
Since the NFL went to its current format, no NFC team that has played in a wild-card game has reached the Super Bowl. And only Philadelphia in 2001 and Green Bay in 1995, both of which played their wild-card games at home, won their divisional playoff games to advance to the championship game, which both lost.
Though the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots didn't need a first-round bye to reach the Super Bowl in the AFC, they are the exceptions.
"Like we saw with the Patriots last year, you never want to say never to anything. But homefield is important," safety John Lynch said. "Our focus during the season is to not only make the playoffs but to put yourself in the best possible situation. Of course, for us, that would be to get the bye, and if we can get the homefield advantage all the way through, that'd be great.
"We'll never forget being in the playoffs in '99, taking that bye and then winning the Redskins game. It was like, what? We're in the NFC Championship Game? Had that game against the Rams been in Tampa, it probably would've turned out differently. Homefield is of huge importance."
Of course, a lot can happen with five weeks remaining in the regular season.
While the Packers could win the NFC North today, the only thing the Bucs could clinch is a fist. Tampa Bay, which owns a one-game lead over New Orleans, plays the Saints on Dec. 1 at the Superdome before hosting Atlanta on Dec. 8.
"We're hoping to get (the Packers) back here, maybe," Johnson said. "That's why this game is big. But I think the other two games after this one are just as big or bigger for us to do that."
But Packers coach Mike Sherman, who watched his team lose 31-21 at Minnesota last weekend, is not ready to print playoff tickets.
"We're not going to talk about that. The only thing we're going to talk about is going down to Tampa Bay and playing a very good, very well-coached football team," Sherman said. "That's our objective and that's enough. What happens after that happens? If we're fortunate enough, they can tell us what's next. We're not the brightest guys in the world up here. We can only focus on one thing, so we're focused on Tampa Bay and what we have to do to play well against them ... whether I tell them this game means this or that is irrelevant."
Sherman has reason to be concerned. Just as the Bucs usually lose at Lambeau, the Packers have never won in four tries at Raymond James Stadium. And Green Bay hasn't exactly rolled over NFC South teams. It was drilled by the Saints in the Superdome and eked out three-point wins over Atlanta and Carolina at Lambeau Field.
"You can take Tampa Bay's defense, you can have us play on a beach in the Bahamas and it would still be a tough place to play," quarterback Brett Favre said. "That's just the way it is. This defense is tough to beat (in Green Bay). We've hung in by the skin of our teeth here. When teams play them, regardless of where it is, it's a huge challenge and a tough one."
Though today's game likely will have postseason implications, Favre said it shouldn't be confused with a playoff game.
"I've been asked this question about games my whole career during the regular season: 'Do they seem like playoff games?' " Favre said. "My response is always no because you know you're going on after this game, win or lose. That does give it different meaning. Not that you play any different; you go into every game like it's your last. But we all know that regardless, we play next week. So in that regard, it is different. It's a big game. To think both of us would be 8-2 at this point ... I don't know if anybody would have thought that."
As big as this game seems to be, it could be bigger in a few weeks if the outcome proves to be the difference in homefield advantage.
"The two years I was here, it was very difficult. We went to the playoffs, but it was a wild-card playoff," Johnson said. "We had to play three games in a row. No Super Bowl team is going to do that. You say, maybe the Baltimore Ravens or somebody like that did it, but other than that, nobody is going to do it.
"It's very, very hard. It's not like it's happening every single year that a wild-card team wins the Super Bowl. It's important to have a game at home and a week off."
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