TAMPA, Fla. — A late-season loss already knocked Green Bay off-stride, and the hungry Packers know they can't afford to stumble again against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"It's important to focus on what you're trying to accomplish each and every week as a football team, and always see the big picture. This is a game we have to win," coach Mike McCarty said, looking ahead to Sunday's opportunity to get back on track. Tampa Bay's dropped four straight, owns the NFC's worst record and is in line for landing the top pick in next spring's NFL draft.
The Packers (10-4) insist there's no way they'll be caught looking past the Bucs (2-12) after losing on the road at Buffalo a week ago, with Aaron Rodgers throwing for 185 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
"We're looking for this to be a tough game," McCarthy said. "And we're taking a playoff approach because this is the time of year where you have to shift gears and make sure the awareness and urgency is heightened in your preparation and trusting the process leading up to the performance."
Green Bay's 21-13 loss to the Bills not only cost the Packers sole possession of first place in the NFC North, but it dealt a blow to the team's pursuit of home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Despite the setback, they still control their fate in the division race. Beat Tampa Bay and close out the regular season with a win at home against Detroit, they'll finish first regardless of what the Lions do. A loss to the Bucs, combined with a Detroit win at struggling Chicago, and the Lions clinch the title.
"I think we'll be pretty focused after last week," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "We know that going on the road is very hard no matter how many wins a team has. ... No matter who it is, you want to start playing our best football this late in the year, and we need to start getting into a rhythm through these last two games, hopefully into the playoffs."
Tampa Bay will finish with a losing record for the fifth time in six years and miss the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. If the season had ended after last Sunday's 19-17 loss at Carolina, the Bucs would own the No. 1 overall pick in the draft for the first time since selecting Vinny Testaverde in 1987.
Nearly 30 years later, the Bucs are still looking for a franchise quarterback. Coach Lovie Smith surely will feel pressure to pursue one if the pick winds up in his hands.
For now, though, Smith is sticking with his hand-picked choice for his first season guiding the Bucs, 35-year-old Josh McCown. The career backup is coming off his best pro season in Chicago, where he filled in for injured Jay Cutler in 2013.
The 12th-year pro has fizzled with Tampa Bay, losing eight of nine starts and missing five games because of injury. He's the NFC's lowest-rated passer, and ahead overall of only the Jaguars' Blake Bortles and Jets' Geno Smith.
Even though the Bucs have little to play for, and second-year quarterback Mike Glennon started 13 games as a rookie a year ago, Smith is standing by McCown, who's thrown for 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
"I think Josh gives us the best opportunity (to win). That's not necessarily a knock against Mike. ... Quarterback just isn't a position where you're going to play a lot of guys. Kind of simple as that," Smith said.
Some things to keep in mind when the Packers try to rebound from only their second loss in the past 11 games, and the struggling Bucs try to play spoilers:
ADVANTAGE PACKERS?: This is the first sellout of the season at Raymond James Stadium, though the stands are expected to be filled mostly with Packers fan. The Bucs 0-6 at home this year.
RJS hasn't been kind to Green Bay. The Packers have lost seven of eight games there since RJS opened in 1998. Rodgers threw for two TDs, but was also intercepted three times in a 10-point loss on their last visit in 2009.
FAMALIAR FOE: Packers LB Julius Peppers played much of his career in the NFC South, so the Bucs are plenty familiar with him from his days with the Carolina Panthers. In 16 career games against the Bucs, Peppers has 15 1-2 sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception he returned for a TD.
BIG TARGET: Mike Evans, Tampa Bay's 6-foot-5 rookie receiver, has nine TD catches in the past seven games. He's tied the franchise record for receiving TDs in a season with 11 overall.
RESILIENT, STRONG FINISHERS: The Packers are 3-0 following a loss this season. They are 24-12 in the month of December under McCarthy, who's in his ninth season.
MEASURING STICK: Since Tampa Bay's bye in Week 7, the Bucs have made strides on defense, ranking in the top 10 in yards allowed per game. The Packers have scored an NFC-high 436 points, Rodgers has the league's highest QB rating and has thrown for 35 TDs vs. five interceptions.
"It will be a good barometer for us of just how much we've improved," said Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.