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THE DEFENSE RESTS THE PEAKING PACKERS WRAPPED UP THE NFC CENTRAL BY STUFFING THE BUCCANEERS

Dec. 15, 1997
Dec. 15, 1997

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Dec. 15, 1997

THE DEFENSE RESTS THE PEAKING PACKERS WRAPPED UP THE NFC CENTRAL BY STUFFING THE BUCCANEERS

Only in Green Bay Department: As the defending Super
Bowl-champion Packers made their way through Austin Straubel
International Airport last Friday night, they walked a friendly
gantlet of hundreds of Tampa-bound Packers fans. No player drew
a louder ovation than defensive tackle-planetoid Gilbert Brown,
who for this road trip had donned an electric-blue suit that
made him resemble, in the opinion of one woman, "a giant
blueberry."

This is an article from the Dec. 15, 1997 issue Original Layout

"If those buttons pop," warned her husband, "hit the deck."

Two days later Brown was also the center of attention, as the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers double- and triple-teamed him, to little
avail, in a 17-6 Green Bay win. Despite playing only three
quarters because of a tender right ankle, Brown, the NFL's top
run stuffer, anchored a defense that limited Bucs running backs
Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn to 34 and 33 yards rushing,
respectively. Deprived of a strong ground game--and the
play-action passes and bootlegs that flow from it--Tampa Bay
managed only eight first downs and two field goals.

With the victory the Packers (11-3) clinched the NFC Central and
assured themselves a first-round bye in the playoffs. Of equal
importance, to hear them tell it, is the fact that they are
playing their best football of the season, that they are, as
defensive tackle Santana Dotson said, "on a roll that will take
us to [the Super Bowl in] San Diego." To clinch the division,
said Dotson, "against a good team, in enemy territory--that
means a lot."

In enemy territory. How droll. An estimated 25,000 Green Bay
fans crashed Houlihan's Stadium, transforming the Big Sombrero
into, as one sign gloated, LAMBEAU SOUTH.

The Packers have been much easier to run against in 1997 than
they were in '96, in large part because of injuries to Brown and
defensive end Reggie White, which forced Fritz Shurmur, Green
Bay's august defensive coordinator, to rotate as many as eight
linemen. Despite the surprising success of what he describes as
"defensive line by committee," Shurmur is relieved to have his
marquee linemen back, even in a reduced role, in time for the
playoffs.

Despite a nagging back injury that so discouraged him that he
spoke openly of retirement as late as mid-November, White racked
up 2 1/2 sacks against the Vikings on Dec. 1. On Sunday, 12 days
shy of his 36th birthday, he planted Bucs quarterback Trent
Dilfer for a seven-yard loss with such authority late in the
second quarter that Dilfer suffered a badly sprained right
ankle. He gamely returned in the second half, but limped
noticeably and was ineffective.

After the game the 345-pound Brown sat in the dressing room, ice
on his right ankle, a frown on his boulder-sized mug. What was
eating him? He said he had been leg-whipped by Tampa Bay guard
Frank Middleton in the game's first series, that later on an
unidentified Buc rolled up his right leg, aggravating his ankle
injury.

"You want to call them cowards," said Brown. "But what can you
do about it?" You can use the bye week to heal, then exact
revenge in the playoffs. "Write this down," Brown said. "Once
I'm healthy, all the guys who take cheap shots at me had better
watch out."

Gentlemen, consider yourselves warned.

--AUSTIN MURPHY

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Green Bay toughened against Tampa Bay, limiting an offense that ran for 217 yards in the teams' first meeting to 67. [Green Bay Packers players and Tampa Bay Buccaneers players in game]