"Ahman Green needs to have a big day."
(Fox Sports analyst and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman will again offer exclusive insight and analysis of a particular game for NFL.com. This week, Aikman previews an important NFC matchup between the Bucs and Packers at Raymond James Stadium.)
Green Bay and Tampa Bay are division leaders and share the league's best record at 8-2. At this stage of the season, there is no doubt that this game has big postseason implications. These are two teams expected to be in the hunt come January, and this game will provide a way for one to get a leg up as far as home-field advantage in the postseason.
Whoever wins will basically have a two-game advantage over whoever loses. In other words, the winner would have to drop two games to yield home-field advantage to whoever loses this game. So from that standpoint, this game is critical.
The Packers had a tough outing at Minnesota last week. They didn't play particularly well; the defense gave up 218 rushing yards and the offense was a bit out of rhythm. I look for them to rebound from that game, but they're going to a place where they haven't played very well the past couple years.
I feel there are two reasons Tampa Bay has a slight edge. Anytime you're playing the Packers and the game isn't being played at Lambeau Field, it's helpful to the opposing team. The Packers enjoy a distinct home-field advantage and are awfully tough to beat at home. The fact that this game is at Raymond James Stadium helps Tampa Bay. Not so much because Tampa plays so well at home but more because Green Bay has played so poorly there in recent years.
Secondly, the Buccaneers defense is playing really well. That's the biggest thing in Tampa's favor entering this game. They're leading the league in sacks, interceptions and have the top-ranked defense. Green Bay shouldn't expect to score a lot of points, which is the type of game best suited for Tampa Bay since their own offense is ranked 17th in the league in scoring.
One of the most interesting aspects of this game will be Green Bay's 30th-ranked run defense against Tampa Bay's 28th-ranked run offense. As bad as the Packers are at stopping the run (giving up an average of 136.1 yards per game), the Bucs have been equally bad running the ball (92.2 yards per game). Something has to give there, and it's anybody's guess which it will be.
As I mentioned, I don't anticipate the Bucs scoring a lot of points. It's not something their offense has done a lot of this season. Although Tampa Bay's offense hasn't been overly impressive this year, it has shown some signs of life recently. They've scored 61 points in the last two games.
Brad Johnson is the kind of quarterback that won't get a team beaten. He has been doing a good job running that offense. He makes good, quick decisions, and doesn't get careless with the football. He gets rid of the ball if he can. He's also getting the ball to Keyshawn Johnson a bit more. Keyshawn has three TD receptions in the past three games, and is a proven playmaker for them.
Tampa Bay's problem is that they haven't been able to run the football, which has hurt. I know that Jon Gruden wants to be able to run the football more. To his credit, he has stuck with the run even when they've had problems with it. That won't change this week. In fact, I think the Bucs expect to have success running the ball against Green Bay's defense. I would expect Tampa to pound it a little bit. Running the ball also allows them to control the clock and keep Brett Favre on the sidelines.
Defensively, Tampa Bay will try to pressure Favre and force him into some turnovers, like they've done to just about every other quarterback they've faced this season. The Buccaneers have been able to score when the defense creates turnovers. Their offense hasn't scored as many points when they've had to do it on their own.
As for the Packers, they have to be balanced and keep things close. They can't turn the ball over, and Ahman Green needs to have a big day. Favre will do what he always does -- he'll complete passes and make some things happen -- but Green Bay has to have some success in the ground game and must protect the football.
I think this will be a close game. The matchups are good, and both teams have their share of injuries to overcome as well.
Tampa Bay could possibly be without Ronde Barber , who had surgery on his fractured left thumb earlier this week. He practiced with the team Wednesday, but is listed as questionable for this game. If he can't go, second-year man Dwight Smith takes his place at the corner. Favre and Green Bay's fifth-ranked passing attack will no doubt look to exploit that matchup with a corps of explosive receivers.
The Packers, meanwhile, will be missing right guard Marco Rivera, which means they'll have to shuffle the offensive line once again. And backup running back Najeh Davenport is out with a broken bone in his left eye socket.
NOTE: Marco Rivera has not been ruled out for Sunday.