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."
"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� 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.