Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers, 3:05 p.m. ET, FOX
The NFC Championship Game will feature the first playoff matchup between two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history: Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. This is another rematch from the regular season, a game in which Aaron Rodgers had his worst outing of the season: he threw two interceptions, completed less than half of his passes and had under 200 yards passing. Brady didn’t have the best game in the world, either, but he did enough — along with Ronald Jones having a great game — to post a dominant 38-10 victory. Can the Buccaneers repeat one of their best defensive efforts against the likely MVP of the 2020 season? Here are the keys to success for both of these teams:
Keys to the game for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1. Continue to have a balanced attack on offense
In the Buccaneers’ win over the Saints in the Divisional Round, Tampa Bay had a very balanced game plan on offense, as they ran the ball 35 times and passed it 33 times. This was one of the more balanced games by the Bucs this season. There have been times when they have gotten away from the run game quickly, and they have gotten down because their passing offense just wasn’t clicking. Against the Packers, especially with Green Bay’s defense starting to steadily improve, it will be important that the Bucs try to stay with their run game and not fall into the trap of going pass-heavy on offense. Despite the fact that the Buccaneers have some of the better receivers in the NFL, their running backs are no slouches, either.Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones have both proven to be capable backs this season. As mentioned earlier, Jones had a good game against the Packers in Week 6, with 113 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. With Fournette having a good game in the Divisional Round, it appears the Bucs could stand to utilize their running backs just as much as they did against the Saints in order to ensure they are not predictable on offense.
2. Continue to utilize Cameron Brate
Cameron Brate has seen his targets decrease the past few seasons with the Bucs continually adding more talent on the offensive side of the ball; however, it appears the veteran from Harvard has started to become more productive in these playoffs as he has compiled 8 receptions for 130 yards through two games. It is safe to say that Brady finding Brate more has opened up the offense for some of the other receivers, especially when the Buccaneers were struggling early on vs. the Saints. Brate isn’t a guy that teams have been keying in on since the Buccaneers have so many weapons. This makes getting the ball to Brate that much more of a priority. If Gronk struggles again, Brady will need a safety blanket to get him going in the passing game. This means that Brate could be in for another solid game. Also, don’t forget that Antonio Brown is dealing with a knee injury, which means the Bucs could use yet another weapon on offense for this game that could very well turn into a shootout. Brate didn’t have the flashiest numbers in the regular season, but he is becoming an essential part of the offense in the postseason.
3. Make Aaron Rodgers uncomfortable
Aaron Rodgers only had 5 interceptions this season, and only one game in which he had more than one interception. This, of course, was the first matchup with the Buccaneers, when Tampa Bay picked him off twic — including a pick-6 by Jamel Dean that was the first of 38 unanswered points the Bucs put up in their Week 6 win. In order to get a similar result in the NFC Championship, Tampa will have to have a similar game plan considering how inconsistent the pass defense has been the past few weeks. Rodgers was sacked four times in Week 6, which was the second-highest total Green Bay has allowed all season. Tampa’s pressure was essential in getting Rodgers to turn the ball over so many times, and it will be crucial that they do so once again with the roll that Rodgers has been on as of late. Thankfully, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has always come up with an aggressive game plan on defense, and he must do so once again. The Buccaneers cannot afford to let Rodgers have a clean pockets all day or else there might be a much different result this time around.
Keys to the game for the Green Bay Packers
1. Push the ball downfield
Part of the reason why Tampa Bay was able to overcome New Orleans in the Divisional Round was due to the fact that Drew Brees could not take deep shots down the field. In fact, Brees did not throw a pass in that game more than 20 yards. The Saints had to use Jameis Winston to take their one deep shot of the game, a touchdown to Tre’Quan Smith, and it seemed like Brees’ lack of arm strength was a big reason for New Orleans having a tough day on the offensive side of the ball. Aaron Rodgers had no issues testing the Rams, who had one of the best defenses in the NFL this season, in the Divisional Round. Rodgers was able to find players like Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling downfield in order to keep the Rams’ defense was on its toes. In essence, the Packers were anything short of predictable in their win over the Rams. If the Packers want to avoid letting the Bucs score 38 unanswered points, they are going to have to continue to be aggressive in the passing game.
2. Don’t let the Buccaneers into the backfield on passing downs
As mentioned before, the Buccaneers were able to force two turnovers on Rodgers and sack him four times in the Packers’ Week 6 loss to the Bucs. The Packers have had a lot of trouble on offense when Rodgers is uncomfortable. It just so happens that hasn’t occurred often this season. Another game when Rodgers was uncomfortable was against the Carolina Panthers in Week 15. This game saw the Packers jump out to a 21-3 lead before the Panthers were able to make a last-ditch comeback attempt and sack Rodgers five times. This was the most Rodgers was sacked in a game in the regular season, and part of this had to do with center Corey Linsley being out. The Packers did a tremendous job against the Rams in the Divisional Round protecting Rodgers, as he was not sacked a single time. It certainly helped that Aaron Donald was not close to 100% healthy, but the Rams had a top defense this season for a reason. Todd Bowles is going to send a lot of blitzes at Rodgers in this one, and it is essential the Packers keep Rodgers upright. It doesn’t help that left tackle David Bakhtiari is out for the season, but the Packers proved they are fully capable of keeping a strong defensive line at bay. They will have to do it again to come out victorious in this one.
3. Shut down Mike Evans
Mike Evans has had a good year for the Bucs with Brady under center, and he has become Brady’s go-to receiver on most of his deep passes. In order for the Packers to come out with a victory, they have to do a good job of keeping Evans under wraps. The Packers did not have to play Cooper Kupp in the Divisional Round, which was a huge reason for the Rams’ passing attack being underwhelming. Even when Evans is not very effective, he is still a red-zone target for Brady, as evidenced by the fact that Evans scored in every game this season where he had three or less receiving yards. The Packers did a good job against Evans the first time around (1 REC for 10 YDS), but that can be attributed to the fact that Tampa was running the ball a lot. If the Buccaneers go with a more pass-heavy approach, it will be up to Kevin King to play well in this one in order to ensure Brady is not in a rhythm with Evans. If they fail to accomplish this feat, it could be a long day.
Stats from: Pro-Football-Reference