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Packers Time Capsule: Allen Rossum and the Packers defense saved the day in an NFC Central showdown

The Packers and Buccaneers were once division rivals, and their last NFC Central tilt featured a memorable ending.

Buccaneers v Packers X

In these pieces, I usually take a look at the last time the Packers played a particular opponent. But this week is the Buccaneers, and the last couple of times the Packers have faced Tampa Bay, the result has frankly been pretty depressing.

So take a trip with me instead back to 2001, when freedom fries flowed across the land, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory was the top-selling album, and fans flocked to theaters to see the first movies in three notable franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Shrek).

Why 2001? Because it was the last season the Packers and Buccaneers faced each other as members of the NFC Central, which gave way to the NFC North as the NFL realigned the following season.

The Buccaneers joined the NFC Central in 1977 and for a quarter century, they represented one of the NFC’s most confusing divisional members. Take your pick on which makes less sense: the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Central. Geography and the NFL don’t really mix, I guess.

The 2001 Buccaneers were another version of essentially the same product they’d been rolling out for most of Tony Dungy’s tenure: they featured a middling offense managed by Brad Johnson and an elite defense with Hall of Fame talent at every level. Though it would be his last season as head coach, Dungy had the pieces in place for Tampa’s Super Bowl run the following year, and you could see those pieces on display in both of the Packers’ matchups with the Bucs that year.

They certainly looked the part of a Super Bowl-caliber defense in Week 3, holding the Packers’ offense in check (including picking off Brett Favre three times) in a 14-10 win.

But in the final matchup of their geographically nonsensical rivalry, the Packers performed much better. In fact, just judging by the box score, you might think they dominated the game. But thanks again to Brett Favre’s lifelong tendency of resource mismanagement, the Buccaneers were nearly able to bully their way to a win.

The Packers opened the game strong, sacking Brad Johnson twice on Tampa Bay’s first drive before driving 63 yards in seven plays to take a 7-0 lead on an Antonio Freeman touchdown catch.

That would be about as good as it got for the Packers’ offense for some time, though, because their next seven drives included three punts, two interceptions, a fumble, and a missed field goal. The fumble, at least, was understandable if not forgivable. Warren Sapp ripped the ball from Ahman Green’s hand a fraction of a second before Green would likely have been ruled down due to his forward progress being stopped.

Favre’s picks, though, were bad in familiar ways: he tried to beat a well-positioned defensive back on an out route before later trying to thread the needle instead of throwing the ball out of bounds when his initial receiver was covered.

As bad as the offense was, the Packers’ defense came to play. They allowed three scoring drives in the first half, but each started in Packers’ territory, and they made the Buccaneers pay dearly for every yard. Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn managed just 35 yards on a combined 20 attempts, and the Packers sacked Brad Johnson a whopping seven times on the afternoon, keeping Green Bay in the game throughout the second half.

A long Ahman Green touchdown run pulled the Packers closer in the third quarter, and the Packers’ defense buckled down even tighter, holding the Buccaneers to just 53 yards on four drives in the fourth quarter.

The game’s key sequence came midway through the final quarter. Starting at their own 34, the Packers went nowhere and got there fast, and Brett Favre was sacked on third down, forcing the Packers to punt. Josh Bidwell booted a 50-yard punt, though, and a holding penalty on the return forced the Buccaneers to start their next drive from their own 12.

Another holding penalty pushed the Buccaneers back even further, and when Brad Johnson threw incomplete on third down, the Buccaneers were forced to punt from their own 10. That’s when Allen Rossum struck.

Maybe he was trying to flip the field, but Mark Royals’ punt didn’t do the Buccaneers’ coverage team any favors. A line-drive kick meant there were no Tampa Bay defenders within about 15 yards of Rossum when he caught the punt, and they didn’t get much closer over the next few seconds.

Sprinting through an enormous gap, Rossum was by seven Buccaneers in the blink of an eye, and only Shelton Quarles laid a finger on him (or, more accurately, his facemask) as the Packers’ punt returner sprinted 55 yards for the go-ahead score. The Buccaneers had two attempts to retake the lead, but the Packers’ defense was up to the task and secured the win in Green Bay.

Their last NFC Central meeting would also be the last time the Packers saw the Buccaneers in Green Bay until 2005 — and their last win over Tampa Bay in Green Bay until 2011. In fact, it’d be one of the Packers’ last noteworthy wins over the Buccaneers for quite some time. Outside of NFC Central play, the Packers are 4-6 against the Buccaneers, and they needed overtime against Jameis Winston to get one of those wins. Tampa Bay has been a tough out for the Packers for a while, but, as their last NFC Central showdown shows, it’s usually because the Packers are determined to get in their own way.