The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers will battle with a trip to Super Bowl LV on the line, and we're counting down the hours to the 3:00 p.m. ET kickoff of the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
QB Tom Brady. Whenever we include Brady in our players to watch we acknowledge that it is mostly unnecessary to do so. You're already going to be watching the quarterback all afternoon. But it's worth including the G.O.A.T. when there is history at hand and a particularly bright spotlight on the Bucs' leader. That is definitely the case on Sunday. After getting the victory in the historic 40-plus matchup with Drew Brees and the Saints, Brady now moves on to a battle of the MVPs with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. If Rodgers captures this year's NFL MVP award, he'll match Brady with three of those coveted trophies. The big difference in the two quarterbacks' resumes, of course, is in the postseason section, where Brady has a league-record six Super Bowl championship rings and four Super Bowl MVP awards. Rodgers did win the MVP trophy the one time he and the Packers made it to the Super Bowl, in 2010, and would further cement his legacy as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever with another title. However, it will be hard for any player to match Brady's ledger, which now includes 14 conference championship games and a shot at a 10th Super Bowl appearance. The Buccaneers made the incredibly bold move to sign Brady in free agency in March, believing they had a playoff-caliber roster and that the long-time Patriot would push them over the edge. Now that this plan has succeeded and the Buccaneers are not only back in the postseason dance for the first time in 13 years but one more win away from their second Super Bowl appearance, it is the very presence of the most successful postseason quarterback in league history that gives the Buccaneers confidence they can complete their long road journey against a team as strong as the Rodgers-led Packers.
OLB Shaquil Barrett. The Buccaneers memorably beat Green Bay, 38-10, in Tampa in Week Six. Tampa Bay's defense racked up five sacks and 13 quarterback hits and that proved to be the only game in which Rodgers threw multiple interceptions. The pressure was clearly the difference in the game, as the Bucs scored 14 points off turnovers and Tom Brady, who was not sacked, was able to lead an efficient, mistake free offense. Barrett did not contribute to that backfield deluge, at least statistically, as he was not credited with a sack or a hit, but perhaps that can be seen as a good thing. The Buccaneers, whose pass rush has been less productive even while the team has hit a hot streak since December, probably need to harass Rodgers as much as possible if they hope to contain the league's highest-scoring attack, and a larger dose of Barrett in the backfield would make a big difference. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Barrett led all Buccaneers pass rushers and ranked third in the NFL with 59 QB pressures during the 2020 regular season. Next Gen Stats also credited Barrett with getting a pressure on one of Brees' three interceptions last weekend in Detroit and indicates that he has had a hand in 12 turnovers by applying pressure or getting sacks since the start of 2019, the most in the NFL. The Packers have an excellent offensive line that ranked fifth in the league in sacks allowed per pass play, but Barrett and fellow edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul won't be going up against Green Bay's optimal tackle combination. With Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari out with a torn ACL, the Packers have shifted Billy Turner to the left side and put Ricky Wagner back in at right tackle. Before Bakhtiari's injury, those two had essentially traded the right tackle job back and forth in the regular season.
G Ali Marpet. As we noted earlier in the week, the Packers' defense has some tendencies that make running the ball between the tackles an attractive option. That includes a league-leading 50% of the team's defensive snaps being played in a dime package, with six defensive backs in the field. In addition, the Packers "stack the box" to try to take away the run game up the middle on the fourth fewest percentage of snaps. Head Coach Bruce Arians doesn't think the Packers will necessarily be as dime-heavy on defense against his team, which used jumbo packages (six-plus offensive linemen) the third-most often in the league and has made good use of two-tight end packages lately. Still, the Buccaneers are likely to try to establish their run game after it has emerged as an important part of the offense in the playoffs. The Buccaneers have largely succeeded between the tackles in their ground game – Ronald Jones, in particular, averaged 6.5 yards per carry on inside runs, second best in the NFL – and Marpet is a big reason why. In the win over New Orleans in the Divisional Round, the Bucs ran Leonard Fournette over Marpet's left guard spot three straight times against a stacked box to get one final first down and a chance to run out the clock. Brady also chose to slide behind Marpet on his touchdown sneak that made it a 10-point game in the fourth quarter. Marpet played the last game through a pectoral injury but it didn't slow him down, as he was part of a front line that only allowed one sack to one of the NFL's best pass-rushing teams. This weekend, he'll have to contend with star interior lineman Kenny Clark, who had 1.5 sacks in the Packers' Divisional win over the Rams.
CB Sean Murphy-Bunting . The Buccaneers' second-year cornerback has stepped up his game in a big way in the playoffs. Murphy-Bunting, who recorded three passes defensed during the regular season, has three more on just 10 targets in the first two postseason game. That includes a pair of interceptions, as he joined Bucs legend Ronde Barber as the only players in team history to pick off a pass in two straight playoff contests. Murphy-Bunting has played primarily in the slot in the playoffs, and that means he will likely be involved in the efforts to slow down Pro Bowl wide receiver Davante Adams, who has been a particularly lethal weapon in the red zone this season. Adams played a career-high 25% of his snaps in the slot this season, so even if the Bucs try to shadow him with Carlton Davis, as they did on 18 of Michael Thomas's 25 routes last weekend, there will likely still be some one-on-one matchups between Adams and Murphy-Bunting. The second-year cornerback is playing with a lot of confidence and the Bucs' young secondary as a whole is coming off one of its best games in New Orleans. Murphy-Bunting's two picks were part of a four-takeaway effort against the Saints, and those turnovers led to 21 points. The Buccaneers may need to keep the takeaways coming in order to repeat their Week Six win over the Packers. Murphy Bunting had four tackles and a quarterback hit in that game.
WR Scotty Miller. Here's the wild card pick in our players to watch. Miller had just one catch in each of the first two playoff games, but with Antonio Brown ruled out of Sunday's game due to a knee injury he is likely to become more involved in the passing game. In fact, it was after Brown went out in New Orleans that Miller gained 29 yards on a play that Arians said was originally designed for Brown. That catch converted a third down and got the ball into Saints territory on what would prove to be the game-winning field goal drive. Miller's one reception in the Wild Card game at Washington was a 15-yarder that converted a third-and-10 on the game's first touchdown drive. Miller and rookie wideout Tyler Johnson are likely to pick up most of Brown's snaps, with one or the other in for specific plays that suit their talents. Before Brown's arrival in Week Seven, and before he had to deal with hip and groin injuries that slowed him in the middle of the season, Miller was having a breakout season in his second year. He had 15 catches for 250 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter of the season then posted his first career 100-yard game against the Raiders. Miller finished fourth on the team with 501 receiving yards, scored three times and led the team with an average of 15.2 yards per catch.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 14%/14%. Get ready for some big plays on Sunday…or at least some attempts to get big plays. Not only did the Packers and Buccaneers finish first and third, respectively, in scoring in 2020 but they were also the two most likely teams to throw the ball deep. According to Next Gen Stats, both Brady and Rodgers threw deep on 14% of their passes, which tied for the highest rate in the league. Brady had 88 deep pass attempts, first in the NFL, and Rodgers was second with 74. Both quarterbacks completed 31 deep passes to tie for the league lead. Rodgers had 1,219 yards, 12 touchdowns and no interceptions on those throws. Brady had 1,099 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions.
· 4.5, 49.3%. Mike Evans had to deal with Marshon Lattimore in New Orleans and now he'll go up against another one of the league's best cover corners in Green Bay. Jaire Alexander allowed just 4.5 yards per target and a 49.3% completion rate when he was targeted as the nearest defender in the regular season, which ranked third and fifth in the league respectively. In the Divisional round, the Rams only targeted Alexander three times, resulting in one reception for a loss of three yards. One difference: While Lattimore shadowed Evans as usual, Alexander has played almost exclusively on the left side of the Packers' defense since Week 11.
· 16.8%/33.3%. We have mentioned repeatedly this week the importance of the Buccaneers' defense putting pressure on Aaron Rodgers, as it did in Week Six. Obviously, the Bucs have shown they can do exactly that, but it won't necessarily be easy. Rodgers enjoyed excellent protection in 2020, with a pressure rate of 16.8% that was his lowest in the five seasons that has been tracked by Next Gen Stats. Rodgers was pressured on more than a quarter of his dropbacks just one time during the 2020 regular season – 33.3% against the Buccaneers in that Week Six contest.
· 17, 16. Devin White made a big difference in his return to action last Sunday after a two-game stay on the reserve/COVID-19 list. While his two biggest plays were a third-quarter fumble recovery and a fourth-quarter interception, both of which led to short-field touchdowns, White also brought an unmistakable injury to the defense as a whole. Next Gen Stats credited the second-year linebacker with three "hustle stops" in the game, tied for the most by any player in a postseason game since at least 2016. Next Gen defines a "hustle stop" as one on which the defender travels 20 or more yards to make the tackle. White and Lavonte David are perhaps the NFL's top linebacker hustle duo, as White tied for second in 2020 with 17 hustle stops and David ranked fifth with 16.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The Buccaneers will be without wideout Antonio Brown, who has served as the primary third receiver alongside Mike Evans and Chris Godwin since his arrival near midseason. Brown sustained a knee injury in New Orleans and did not recover sufficiently to make the trip to Green Bay. The Buccaneers will look to young receivers Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson to step up in Brown's absence.
· The Packers added cornerback Kevin King to their injury report on Friday when he did not participate due to a back ailment. Though he missed five games in the middle of the season due to a quad injury, King has started all 12 games in which he's played, including the postseason and was on the field for at least 90% of all those contests except for when he got hurt in Week Four. Chandon Sullivan was King's primary replacement in the starting lineup while King was out.
· While the offense will be without Brown, the defense is getting a big contributor back with the activation of defensive lineman Vita Vea from injured reserve. Vea, who hasn't played since suffering an ankle fracture in Week Five, may not jump directly back into a high-snap role but he should join an interior-line rotation with Ndamukong Suh, Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Will Gholston.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE PACKERS
The Packers ranked in the league's top five in a variety of offensive categories, including scoring (1st), yards (5th), yards per play (3rd), yards per pass play (2nd), interception percentage (1st) and sacks allowed per pass play (5th). In addition to the NFL leader in touchdown receptions in wideout Davante Adams, the Packers also feature a three-headed backfield led by Pro Bowler Aaron Jones alongside Jamaal Williams and rising rookie AJ Dillon. Green Bay's defense finished with mostly middle-of-the-pack league rankings but was top-10 in sacks and passing yards allowed. Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, who actually makes more of a pass-rushing impact when he lines up inside, led the team with 12.5 sacks after getting 13.5 last year in his first season with the team. Green Bay's kicker, Mason Crosby, has not missed a field goal in 2020. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday in Green Bay.
Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and interior lineman Kenny Clark probably rank as the Packers' top three pass-rushers, but second-year man Rashan Gary is coming on strong. Gary, who was the 12th-overall pick in the 2019 draft, has only started four games in his first two campaigns but his snap count went up dramatically in 2020, to 44% of the defensive plays, and he has quietly been one of Green Bay's most effective pass-rushers on a snap to snap basis. In addition to his 1.5 sacks last weekend against the Rams, the former Michigan star had a career-high seven quarterback pressures on just 21 pass rushes. Overall, Gary finished his second season with a pressure rate of 12.0% on his rushes in 2020, which was the best mark by any Green Bay defender. The Packers may be at their best in terms of rushing the passer when they bump Za'Darius Smith into the inside, put Preston Smith on the same side and then bring in Gary to rush from the opposite edge.
The Buccaneers want to get Rodgers on the ground, but they don't necessarily want to flush him out of the pocket. The Green Bay star is often at his most dangerous when he extends plays. According to Next Gen Stats, Rodgers was only sacked on 18.5% of the plays on which it took more than four seconds to get the throw off or get sacked, fourth-lowest among NFL quarterbacks. In those situations, he threw eight touchdown passes and not a single interception. Bringing an extra pass rusher at Rodgers doesn't always work, either. Facing a five-man rush this season, Rodgers threw a league-high 10 touchdown passes and had a passer rating of 118.0. Tampa Bay's defense also has to figure out when Rodgers is handing off and when he's faking it. Green Bay used play-action on 28% of their dropbacks in 2020 and Rodgers completed 73.5% of those passes. Rodgers had 20 touchdown passes off play-action this season, including 16 in the red zone.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On the importance of having veterans on the roster with extensive playoff experience, including Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, LeSean McCoy and Jason Pierre-Paul:
"Having Tom, 'Gronk,' 'Shady,' Leonard [Fournette] and other guys on offense and then JPP defensively – yeah, it helps. Those guys, they can talk to the guys in the locker room about preparation and that it's really the same game. You just have to be totally prepared so that you can go out and do your job."