The Tampa Bay Buccaneers extended their winning streak to a franchise-record seven games on Sunday in Green Bay, leaving them just one more victory from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. On Sunday, February 7, the Buccaneers will be the first team in NFL history to play in the Super Bowl on their home field when they take on the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium in Super Bowl LV.
But before we move on to what will be a historic day in the Bay area, we still have some business to attend to regarding the game in that other Bay. The Buccaneers 31-26 win over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game – their eighth straight road triumph – had a little bit of everything: turnovers, impossible deep-ball catches, clutch red zone stops, sacks, third-down heroics, a highlight reel touchdown run, even a Gronk moment. It was yet another full-team win, which is becoming the norm for Tampa Bay.
That means another week with a whole lot of worthy Game Ball candidates. Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for five sacks and Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepted a pass for the third straight postseason game. Jordan Whitehead resembled a heat-seeking missile before leaving with a shoulder injury but not before causing the game's key turnover. Vita Vea played 33 snaps!
Tom Brady helped the Buccaneers build an 18-point lead with three touchdown passes, his 10th straight game with multiple scoring throws. Chris Godwin didn't catch any of those touchdown passes but did have 110 yards, 52 of them on the most remarkable catch of the game. Scotty Miller stunned the Lambeau crowd to silence with his touchdown right before halftime. It was Fournette – "Playoff Lenny" to you and me – who had that aforementioned touchdown run highlight. The offensive line was magnificent once again.
But if we can only give out one Game Ball, who should get it? Let's get together and decide. After every Buccaneers win this season, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I are nominating one player each for a vote by the fans as to who deserves that week's Game Ball. The fans will then determine the winner in a poll at the bottom of this page, voting either for Carmen's choice or my choice…or if you aren't satisfied with the candidates we put forth, you can choose "other." Since we have decided not to duplicate picks in any given week, we're alternating the order of selection and it's my turn to go first.
Scott Smith: OLB Shaq Barrett
The NFC Championship Game was justifiably billed as a matchup between two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and the prevailing wisdom was that both Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers would be able to carve up the opposition if there was no pressure on the passer. Thus, the Buccaneers were eager to duplicate their Week Six performance, in which five sacks and 13 quarterback hits made the difference in a 38-10 win over Green Bay at Raymond James Stadium.
The problem was, virtually no other defense had pressured Rodgers all season. Other than that first Bucs game, he had been sacked more than once in only two more games. The Bears and Rams, both teams with strong pass rushes, had combine for all of one sack of Rodgers in the Packers' previous two games. Could the Bucs really dial up the heat again on this cold day at Lambeau?
Oh yes, they could! Specifically Barrett and Pierre-Paul made it a rough day for tackles Ricky Wagner and Billy Turner with their five sacks and six quarterback hits. Barrett, channeling his inner Warren Sapp in Green Bay, had three of those sacks and four of the QB hits. With the offense sputtering and turning the ball over in the second half after building a 28-10 lead, it was up to the defense to hold off Rodgers and a Green Bay offense that had led the NFL with 31.8 points per game in the regular season. The pressure was key, and Barrett's three sacks in particular were all extremely significant plays.
In fact, all three of Barrett's sacks helped to end drives. The first one came on third down of Green Bay's first possession, forcing a punt after the Bucs had used their first drive to take a 7-0 lead. It marked just the third time all season that Green Bay's offense didn't score on its first possession of the game.
Barrett's other two sacks came in the fourth quarter. The first one came on third down on a Green Bay drive created by Jaire Alexander's first interception. The Bucs were only leading by five at the time, but Barrett got to Rodgers on third-and-five for a 10-yard sack, keeping the Packers from swinging the game's momentum with that turnover.
Unfortunately, Alexander picked off another pass 90 seconds later, giving Green Bay yet another chance to take control. Barrett would have none of it. On the first play after the pick, he timed his get-off perfectly and shot around Wagner before he had time to react for another sack. The Packers couldn't recover and had to punt again. The rest of the game would feature just one field goal for each team, and the Bucs held on for the win. That would have been much harder to do without Shaq setting up residence in Rodgers' pocket.
Carmen Vitali: WR Chris Godwin
I was extremely tempted to put Pierre-Paul here because he was absolutely as deserving as Barrett, even insisting in the postgame pressers that they actually split the 5.0 sacks of Rodgers on the night evenly at 2.5 apiece. And to that end, I'm not sure either of them have the night they do without the interior guys on the defensive line, not least of which includes the aforementioned Vea, who I think was on the field a lot more than any of us anticipated in his first game action since Week Five.
But for the sake of giving the offense, who put up 31 points their due, it doesn't happen with Godwin. As Scott mentioned, he had 110 yards. When the offense needed a spark (or a lifeline), Godwin was there. Third and nine on the first drive of the game at the Green Bay 32? Boom, 14 yards for number 14 to move the chains. The very next drive, third and 13? Another 14-yard grab for 14. Then, first drive of the second quarter, third and nine, and you get that 52-yard completion that Scott also mentioned above, setting up a Leonard Fournette touchdown (a quite-angry 20-yard run cc: GMFB's Kyle Brandt) that gave the Bucs a lead they would not relinquish the rest of the game. That means three of Godwin's five catches came on third down. His one 'rush' of the game also came on a third-down end around on the second-to-last play of the game. It gave the Bucs the first down needed to set up their victory formation and punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.
Godwin ended the day with a 22.0 yard-per-reception average and proved that he is a do-it-all receiver that can handle the biggest of stages. The Buccaneers were also without Antonio Brown and Green Bay was paying special attention to Mike Evans, leaving a lot of the load on Godwin's shoulders. He more than delivered and single-handedly extended productive drives that contributed to the Buccaneer victory.
But if you go with Barrett for this, I'm not going to be mad, either.