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Reggie & Bruce highlight season finale

December 19, 1997

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) _ A meaningless game? Not when it features Bruce Smith and Reggie White, the pre-eminent defensive ends in pro football.

Both will be on the field Saturday when the Buffalo Bills (6-9) end their disappointing season with a trip to Lambeau Field, where the Green Bay Packers (12-3) will seek to stretch their home winning streak to 26. The Packers also hope to get Dorsey Levens the club rushing record and, most importantly, keep Brett Favre & Co. intact for another run at the Super Bowl.

In Smith, rookie left tackle Ross Verba faces his stiffest challenge yet.

``Ross has his hands full,″ Packers coach Mike Holmgren said. ``Ross is a good football player, but Bruce has made a lot of real good football players look pretty foolish. So we’re going to try to help Ross a little bit, and that’s not a reflection on Ross, that’s just a comment on Bruce’s greatness.″

Favre said he wasn’t worried about Verba _ or Smith, for that matter.

``I don’t even look at Ross as a rookie anymore,″ Favre said. ``It makes for a good story, but he’s a hell of a player and he has a lot of confidence right now. I don’t think he cares who he plays.

``Bruce is a great player. He will get to me eventually, he will,″ Favre added. ``I think Ross knows that, and he’ll probably tell you, `I’m not going to let him.′ But Bruce is a great player and he’ll find a way to get in there. But I feel so comfortable with Ross that it doesn’t really matter.″

Holmgren said he won’t give his starters a breather even though the Packers can’t improve their lot as the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

But you can bet that if Verba has trouble keeping Smith off Favre that backup Steve Bono will be in the game early.

Bills coach Marv Levy said he wouldn’t expect anything less than Green Bay’s best shot, especially with the Packers coming off their first sweep of a three-game road trip since 1963.

``We know who we’re playing, the defending Super Bowl champions. I think they’re going to play very well,″ Levy said. ``We’ve been in a similar situation and I know that the players who went out on the field wanted very badly to win the game.″

Only if his team builds a comfortable lead will Holmgren pull his starters.

``I’m not going to coach it any differently and I’m not going to substitute any differently,″ Holmgren insisted. ``So my challenge to them is `You show me what it means for you to be a professional football player.‴

That’s what’s on the line for Buffalo, too.

``The guys here know that we still have a lot at stake even though we’re not going to the playoffs,″ Bills safety Henry Jones said. ``We’re playing for pride and jobs. We’ll have some intensity out there. I’m pretty sure they will, too.″

Levens needs 111 yards to break Jim Taylor’s 35-year-old club season record of 1,474 yards rushing.

``If I don’t get the record, I don’t get it,″ Levens said. ``I don’t worry about stuff like that. I just want to get to the Super Bowl.″

The Bills will bid farewell to special teams ace Steve Tasker, who’s retiring.

``They should make room for him in the Hall of Fame,″ said Packers receiver Don Beebe, who played with Tasker in Buffalo.

Two players who have assured themselves spots in the historic hall are Smith and White, who will be meeting for the fifth time in their respective 13-year NFL careers.

White’s 175 1/2 sacks are the most since the NFL began keeping track in 1982. Smith is second with 154, including 14 this season.

Smith, 34, would love to overtake White, who turned 36 on Friday and was named to a record 12th Pro Bowl this month despite a case of pneumonia.

``Reggie’s got 10 sacks this year, if he keeps on that pace, nobody’s going to catch him,″ Smith said.

Smith has been to four Super Bowls and lost them all. White finally reached his first last January and set the title game record with three sacks before trotting around the Superdome with the Lombardi Trophy held high.

Neither White nor Smith would stake claim this week to being the best defensive end in the NFL.

``I don’t think that’s what it’s about,″ White said. ``Winning is. And No. 2, building a legacy for yourself when you get out of the game.

``And I think both of us have.″

``Reggie and I talk about that all the time,″ Smith said. ``Some people say I’m the second best. Some people say I’m the best. It’s a matter of opinion.

``I do know, and Reggie and I spoke about this, that ultimately we’re both going to be headed in the same place. That’s the Hall of Fame.″

Upon arrival, though, White will have at least one ring, maybe two, if not the most sacks.

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