FRED GOODALL, AP Sports Writer

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers relish the challenge of having to beat the NFL’s hottest team to get their season back on track.

The Bucs (4-5) have played progressively worse in dropping three straight games, yet insist they have not lost confidence in themselves.

Tampa Bay travels to Green Bay this weekend to face the unbeaten Packers (9-0) and feels it not only is capable of playing the Super Bowl champions tough — but winning.

“We know they’re not going to take it easy, but you kind of hope they underestimate you a little bit and maybe we can sneak up on them,” offensive tackle Donald Penn said Wednesday.

Tampa Bay is coming off an embarrassing 37-9 loss that prompted coach Raheem Morris to question the effort of some players. The defense yielded 420 yards to the Texans to tumble to 31st in the NFL rankings, and the Bucs’ sputtering offense failed to score a touchdown until the fourth quarter for the second week in a row.

Green Bay, meanwhile, has won 15 straight dating to last season, the longest winning streak in franchise history.

“It’s a long season. We need to get a run going, fix the little things that we can control — effort, dumb penalties, things like that,” Penn said. “We do that and I think we’ll be back to where we need to be. … One thing we do is fight back. It’s a perfect test.”

The Bucs entered the season with heightened expectations after going 10-6 and narrowly missing the playoffs a year ago. They’ve lost four of five following a 3-1 start, and Morris is fielding questions about whether the league’s youngest team has regressed or simply is going through a tough stretch.

Third-year quarterback Josh Freeman is at the center of the struggles. After throwing for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 2010, he has nine TD passes vs. 13 interceptions through nine games this season.

Freeman reiterated Wednesday that he doesn’t feel he’s taken a step back and that he’s actually a lot better player today than he was a year ago, even if his statistics don’t support the contention he initially made after being sacked four times and throwing three interceptions during last Sunday’s loss to the Texans.

He’s played two games and part of a third with a sprained thumb on his throwing hand, however Freeman insisted the injury didn’t hinder him that much during losses to Chicago, New Orleans and Houston.

“Being out there, you have to play well enough to win. … It’s near 100 percent right now, so it’s not something I’m concerned about,” Freeman said.

Morris also played down the severity of the injury, as well as how much it has affected Freeman’s play.

“In my eyes, I don’t see it as a factor. My young quarterback has to go out there and deliver the football with precision and timing,” the coach said. “This young man played with a broken finger for the first four games of last season. We won’t make excuses for a sprained thumb. And we won’t blame our losing streak on it.”

Despite the poor stretch, Freeman said he and his teammates remain confident. He agreed with Morris that effort was a problem against Houston, but expects the team to rebound against Green Bay.

“You have to go out and play with 100 percent effort,” Freeman said. “This league’s so competitive, if you don’t go out and give it the best you have, you’re not going to have a chance.”

 opyright 2011 The Associated Press.