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Packers are cruising on good spare parts

They have been dropping like flies in Green Bay this season, one starter after another going down with an injury, including quarterback Brett Favre. With each one, tackle Earl Dotson's smile has grown wider.

"That would be a death penalty for some teams," Dotson said.

At 8-2, the Packers are very much alive and kicking. And the deluge of injuries they've endured proves they are not only talented, but surprisingly deep.

Around Green Bay, that has fans thinking the same thing: Super Bowl.

"I have one of those nervous feelings," Dotson said. "We can do it, but we can't get overconfident. We had to earn our respect in '96 (the season in which they last won the Super Bowl). Even though a lot of people are on our bandwagon, we've still got a lot of doubters. We've still got to prove it to everybody."

Sunday's game with the Bucs (8-2) would be a good start. The Packers, who haven't beaten the Bucs in four previous trips to Raymond James Stadium, earned six of their eight wins against teams that at the time had losing records. The exceptions: They narrowly beat the Falcons in the season opener (perhaps catching them before they got in a groove) and they whipped the Dolphins without starting quarterback Jay Fiedler, who has been out with a thumb injury.

Even the Packers are only cautiously optimistic about their postseason chances.

"You know when I'll have a feeling we're a Super Bowl team?" safety Darren Sharper said. "When I'm holding up that (Lombardi) trophy. I want us to be hitting on all cylinders in January. I've seen too many times where the team that's expected to win doesn't win. I don't want this team to have that attitude at all. I want us to always feel we're the underdog and have something to prove."

They're already proving their brilliance goes well beyond their frontline players. They've had 12 starters miss more than 30 games. It started with tackle Mark Tauscher, who was lost for the season in Week 2, and has included running back Ahman Green, who missed a Week 3 game against the Lions and most of their rematch Nov. 10.

Favre is expected to take on the Bucs wearing a brace on the left knee he injured against Washington on Oct. 20. And key starters such as guard Marco Rivera (knee) and defensive end Vonnie Holiday (knee) are nursing injuries and might not play.

Yet, backups such as Dotson, center Frank Winters, rookie strong safety Marques Anderson, safety Matt Bowen, guard Mike Flanagan and rookie defensive end Aaron Kampman have filled in surprisingly well to keep the Packers comfortably atop the NFC North.

Also, after losing veteran go-to receiver Antonio Freeman to free agency, backup Donald Driver has taken over and ranks third in the NFC in receiving yards (838) after successive 100-yard games.

"I think that's the thing that's making them so good this year. They lose guys and they just keep on ticking," said Lions special assistant Sherman Lewis, formerly with the Packers. "They've developed outstanding depth."

Then there's Favre, 33, who has virtually the same energy as he had as a rookie 12 seasons ago. He is 219-for-340 for 2,540 yards, 19 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. His passer rating of 96.9 ranks fourth in the league.

"He's the best in the game right now. He is unbelievable," said Lewis, who worked closely with Favre as the team's offensive coordinator from 1992-99. "All he needs is a little opening and he's going to get it in there."

But do the Packers, who were upset Sunday by the lowly Vikings, still have the inside track to the Super Bowl?

History says the Packers, ranked 13th in rushing (121.8 yards per game), have to run the ball well to get there. In their Super Bowl seasons in 1996 and '97, they ranked 12th (114.9) and 11th (119.3), respectively. Every other season since Favre arrived in 1992, they have ranked 19th or worse.

The schedule also favors the Packers. After Tampa Bay, they face one team that has a winning record, San Francisco at 7-3.

"They have a great balance with the run game and the passing game, so the offense has definitely taken them to heights that probably weren't advertised right," Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. "And they've got a receiving corps that's kind of playing like the St. Louis Rams receiving corps were playing a few years back.

"But, all in all, we're not going to try and let them go out and look like Super Bowl champs against us."