For Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans, 2020 wasn’t really all that bad of a year, all things considered. For an extensive look at how the season broke down going into the Divisional Round of the playoffs, go here. A lot has happened since then, in the lead up to the NFC Championship Game. The GOAT is doing GOAT things, players have come off the COVID list and dominated (see Devin White), and, most importantly, the Bucs took out the trash in their division. Yup, I’m not apologizing Saints fans. I hate you. I hate your franchise. I enjoy watching you crash out of the playoffs every year and I loved seeing my Bucs be the ones to do it to you this year. Fight me. Evil was punished.
Now Tom Brady and his swashbuckling pirate crew are going up an even bigger threat in the NFC Championship Game: the (likely) MVP in Aaron Rodgers and a Green Bay Packers team that just sliced up the number one defense in the league last weekend. Unlike New Orleans, I don’t hate the Packers or their fans. While I do find it a little odd that Packers fans are everywhere around the world, their fanbase is pretty bearable. Social media is certainly a black hole of negativity and suckiness but Packers fans have generally been well behaved and knowledgeable about the game. Damn it. Say something to make me hate you!
In all honesty, watching the Packers is pretty fun. They have the league’s number one offense (509 total points at 31.8 points per game) and Aaron Rodgers just does amazing things with his arms and feet. He threw 48 touchdowns and added three more on the ground in the regular season. RB Aaron Jones ran for 1,104 yards (5.5 yards an attempt) and nine touchdowns while Pro Bowler Davante Adams and third-year receiver Robert Tonyan combined for 1,960 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns. Their defense was in the top half of the league (13th), led by Pro Bowl OLB Za’Darius Smith’s 12.5 sacks, Darnell Savage Jr.’s four interceptions and twelve passes defended, and Pro Bowler cornerback Jaire Alexander lurking all over the field. Pro Bowlers! Pro Bowlers everywhere!
So what does that all mean for Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game? Well the first thing many Bucs fans point out to is the Week 6 meeting between these two teams in which Green Bay got out to a 10-0 first quarter lead before utterly falling apart in uncharacteristic fashion, surrendering 28 points in the second quarter and eventually falling 38-10. Tampa had a balanced offensive attack (two rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns; a solid 324 total yards) while swarming the Packers on defense. The Bucs’ two interceptions (one for a pick-six) and four sacks certainly rattled Aaron Rodgers. Jones was held to 15 yards rushing and the offense only had one pass go for 20 yards. It was domination on both ends of the field for Tampa Bay. But, in the end, it don’t mean squat!
Not only is Green Bay a much improved team than they were in Week 6 (which is amazing to say when the team entered that Week 6 game 4-0 and have only lost twice in twelve tries since) but if the Bucs’ own season can attest, past results against a former opponent do not dictate the future. The Bucs were hammered 38-3 by New Orleans in Week 9, and that was after losing to them less catastrophically but still handily 34-23 in Week 1. In the end, Tampa got the best of New Orleans when it mattered, dispatching them 30-20 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Weeks 1 and 9 didn’t mean a damn thing.
So Bucs fans should ignore that 38-10 hammering because, let’s face it, Aaron Rodgers is not throwing two interceptions again. He only threw five in all of 2020. And he has the best career TD-INT ratio in history. He doesn’t give out gifts that often. The Week 6 debacle was likely the worst game of his career and it took 16 years to get there. It’ll probably be another 16 years before he plays that bad again. So Bucs fan: wash your mind clean of it. I guarantee you the players have.
That said though, Rodgers has a peculiar history with Tampa Bay. He is only 2-3 against them in five games and Tampa Bay remains the only team in the league he has thrown more interceptions against (9) than TDs (8). Also, of Rodgers three total pick-sixes in his illustrious career, two of them came against the Bucs (Tanard Jackson in 2009 and Jamel Dean in 2020). He’s also been sacked 16 times (3.2 a game). Does Tampa have some kind of voodoo against the man? Fans, once again: wash this out of your memory. This might be the best Aaron Rodgers the Bucs have ever faced. And he seems like he’s on a mission.
The only way to proceed with this game is to erase the history (and don’t even try to use past playoff matchups as bulletin board material for “revenge”. The last time these two teams met up in the playoffs was in 1998. The Bucs had Trent Dilfer at quarterback and the Packers had beaten the Bucs twice in the regular season; most of the current Bucs were just in diapers. Except, of course, Tom Brady). Forget Week 6 happened and rely on the givens.
What do the Buccaneers have as givens? Well, Tom Brady for one. I don’t even need to go into his esteemed history to explain why having the man on your team is a distinct advantage over anyone. Another way to look at it is that the Packers will be the “easiest” defense the Bucs have faced in the playoffs. The Washington Football Team and the New Orleans Saints were both Top 5 defenses. The Bucs offensive line peaked at the right time, protecting Brady against two wicked defensive fronts and was able to not turn the ball over on two teams that dominated on takeaways.
Add a suddenly balanced offensive attack that has come to fruition in these playoffs with the two headed running monster of “Playoff Lenny” Fournette and Ronald Jones to the equation. Since that will enforce play-action passing with one of the most gifted passers in league history, who has an elite receiving corp at his disposal, there are tons of ways for the Bucs to attack the Pack. Green Bay is 21st in running yards per attempt, in the lower half of the league for enforcing turnovers (Fumbles and Interceptions), and 17th in points allowed. Overall they are 13th but that is a pretty big gap between what Brady and the offense has faced thus far.
The other, admittedly wobbly, given is Tampa Bay’s defense. It’s had a few… interesting… games this season but, overall, has been dominant. For the second year running they have the best rushing defense in the game. They’re fifth in overall turnovers, sixth in total yards allowed, and sixth in points allowed. And after retiring Drew Brees last week, the engine is certainly feeling itself. So far in the playoffs, the Bucs only have two sacks. I won’t make a prediction on the game here but I certainly suspect the D-Line is looking to feast, especially with defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ well known tendency to blitz.
So, nothing in the past matters Bucs fans. We can only look to the future and the weapons at our disposal. Our top-tier defense, balanced offensive approach, and all-time leader at QB gives us a chance. And this might be the best chance we’ve had since the Bucs beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship game in 2002 (also, it should be noted, as underdogs, on the road, in freezing cold weather). This will, undoubtedly, be the toughest game of the season for Tampa but it is, by no means, out of reach.