Sunday’s contest marks just the ninth meeting between the Packers and Buccaneers since the NFL’s 2002 realignment and only the sixth in the last 15 years. However, for 25 years, these two teams engaged in a colorful rivalry that culminated at the turn of the century thanks to two eventual Hall of Famers.
The Battle of the Bays. A matchup of two unlikely foes from very opposite portions of the NFL map. While the two franchises shared very little in common, the Packers and Buccaneers produced one of the more unique rivalries in the old NFC Central Division.
For many years, the Green Bay Packers-Tampa Bay Buccaneers games usually resulted in contests between two teams trying to stay out of last place in the division. Yet, the rise of both franchises in the 1990s – highlighted by on-field feuds between each club’s star player – gave rise to one of the nastiest and most competitive rivalries in Packers history.
Here’s how the “Bay of Pigs” became a battle among NFC elites.
Failures in the ‘70s and ‘80s
The Buccaneers entered the NFL in 1976 alongside the Seattle Seahawks as the league’s 27th and 28th franchises. Though their expansion brethren in Seattle experienced moderate success, Tampa Bay’s run through the 1970s and 1980s matched that of the Packers – a couple good years mixed amongst many bad ones.
As such, their games were typically battles for the bottom of the NFC Central. In the 14 seasons with divisional alignment between 1977 and 1991 (the 1982 strike resulted in the NFL doing away with divisions for one year), Green Bay and Tampa Bay combined to finish in last in the division 12 times. Additionally, in four of those seasons, the Packers and Bucs were the fourth- and fifth-place teams.
While things turned around in Green Bay beginning in 1992 with the culture change initiated by Ron Wolf’s arrival, Tampa Bay’s doldrums persisted with three more last place finishes through 1995. Things, though, were changing on Florida’s Gulf Coast. In 1995, businessman Malcolm Glazer purchased the Bucs from the estate of the recently-deceased Hugh Culverhouse, who had been the team’s owner since their inception.
Glazer’s arrival also coincided with those of general manager Rich McKay and head coach Tony Dungy. On the field, the Bucs had a run of successful drafts that netted the likes of Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Warrick Dunn and Ronde Barber to build a long-term core centered on defense and change the narrative of the rivalry.
“You’ve got Brett Favre, and this team has the Green Bay Packers”
The first signs of change in the rivalry showed midway through the 1996 season, when a 6-1 Packers squad fresh off a bye week hosted a 1-6 Tampa Bay team fresh off a loss at Arizona. Just weeks removed from a 34-3 thrashing of the Bucs, Green Bay was pegged as 17.5-point favorites at Lambeau Field. Yet, Dungy’s defensive-minded squad surrendered just 13 first-half points and held defending and eventual MVP Brett Favre to 178 yards and a pick in what ended up a 13-7 Green Bay win.
Against the Packers, Dungy had a simple message for Sapp, the team’s star defensive tackle and face to what would become one of the NFL’s dominant defenses.
“You’ve got Brett Favre, and this team has the Green Bay Packers”
Simply put, if Sapp and the front four could get pressure on Favre, the linebackers and defensive backs could handle the rest of the Packers’ weapons. That philosophy became a hallmark for Dungy’s defensive staff headed by coordinator Monte Kiffin alongside position coaches Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli.
The change that flashed in 1996 fully came through in 1997. With more experience on defense and the addition of Dunn in the backfield with Mike Alstott, Tampa Bay rushed out to a 5-0 start to the year. However, the Packers ended that undefeated run with a 21-16 win at Lambeau. Two months later, the Packers slogged their way to a 17-6 win at Houlihan’s Stadium to earn their third-straight NFC Central crown.
Yet, the two weren’t done crossing paths that year. With a win over the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card round, Tampa Bay earned a second trip to Green Bay for a Divisional Round contest. On a wet and cold day marred by turnovers on both sides, the Packers emerged with a 21-7 win.
It was also in that game where the on-field clashes between Favre and Sapp began. Though Sapp sacked Favre three times and forced two fumbles, it was an exchange at the end of the third quarter that sparked things.
“(Favre) said, ‘Hey, where the hell are you going?'” Sapp said in a 2013 interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “I had to stop and go back. (Packers coach Mike) Holmgren tries to stop him from coming back to me. He snatched loose from Holmgren, and that’s when I knew he was like me. He walked up to me and said, ‘What do you want to do, fat boy?’ I said, ‘I ain’t going nowhere. One more quarter, me and you. We’re going to find out who the baddest man today is.’
“He said, ‘I’m with you.’ We slapped hands. And he went back to Holmgren, and I went down the sideline.”
Over the next four years, the rivalry was as even as any in Packers history. Each team won on its home turf and, outside of a 29-10 Green Bay loss in Tampa near the end of the 1999 season, each contest was decided by eight points or fewer. Four times the winner rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit (most notably Favre’s last-minute win on his 30th birthday in 1999). Meanwhile, a fifth contest was decided in overtime, as Ryan Longwell’s 22-yard field goal gave the Packers a 17-14 win and thwarted the Bucs’ shot at a home playoff game and potential NFC Central title.
Central to the rivalry were the battles between Favre and Sapp, whose confrontations not only made for great content for NFL Films, but brought the rivalry to a national stage.
From Division Rivals to Conference Rivals
With the advent of the Houston Texans, the NFL realigned its divisions with keeping rivalries intact one of the top priorities. With four-team divisions, though, one of the five NFC Central teams would have to move. The obvious choice ended up being Tampa Bay given that the quartet of Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota had been in the same conference or division since 1961. Thus, the Bucs moved to the new NFC South.
That change didn’t stop the heated rivalry. In 2002, the two met in Raymond James Stadium with identical 8-2 records and reasonable hopes for the NFC’s top seed. Despite a 7-3 halftime lead, four second-half interceptions from Favre and an otherwise struggling offense resulted in a 21-7 loss. The final score, though, was overshadowed by a confrontation between Sapp and head coach Mike Sherman following the defensive tackle’s dirty hit on Chad Clifton following a Tampa Bay interception.
Green Bay picked up a measure of revenge the following season in Florida. With both teams at 4-5 and looking for a midseason spark toward a playoff push, the Packers used a 17-play, 98-yard drive that culminated with an Ahman Green touchdown run to take control of what became a 20-13 win. The victory spurred the Packers to wins in six of their final seven games to capture the NFC North title, while the Bucs came up short of the playoffs altogether.
From there, the rivalry faded away, as the two sides played less frequently – 2004 marked the first non-strike season neither team played each other since the Bucs’ inaugural 1976 campaign – and both Favre and Sapp hit the twilight of their respective careers.