The Buccaneers played a familiar team in the playoffs last weekend, facing off against the Saints for the third time this season. This time, they'll get a team they played – and beat – in Week Six in the Green Bay Packers. But Head Coach Bruce Arians doesn't want his team resting on those laurels.
"It was the same thing as the Saints last week, having beaten us twice [and] pretty badly, once," he said. "We won that ballgame. You can't fall into that trap of what happened last time. They're a much, much better football team [and] we're a much better football team. Both [teams are] very different right now, so you better take care of today's work each and every day."
And that message was received by the players, according to defensive captain Lavonte David.
"We put that in people's ears already," he said about the prior win over Green Bay holding little weight in this coming contest. "This is a whole different football team that we're about to face and we're a different team in our own right. At the same time, this is a different stage and a different level. That was like Week  in October or whatever it was – that was a long time ago. We've got to put that past us. They've got a lot of weapons back. It's going to be a different ballgame. A lot is at stake right here, so we've definitely got to forget about what happened that game the last time we played them and focus on the right now – that's us getting better at practice today. When Sunday comes, we've just got to be able to execute at a very high level."
Despite only scoring 10 points in Week Six against the Bucs, the Packers have the number one scoring offense in the league, averaging 31.8 points per game. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers leads the league in passer rating with a 121.5 average over the course of the regular season. So yeah, this is a different team. But like David said, so are the Buccaneers.
"I think we're better offensively," said wide receiver Mike Evans on Wednesday. "Our defense has been really good all year. I just think we're better offensively. We've been getting more time in – that was our sixth game together with no preseason, [shorter] training camp [and] no OTAs. We're just getting better and better each week as the season goes on. I just feel like we're better offensively. Our defense has been strong all year."
That defense has maintained their number one ranking against the run, which carried over from last season. They were able to stop the Packers in Week Six thanks in large part to that particular strength of theirs. And if they want to have success a second time, they'll have to do it again.
"They still have a great offense," safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said about the Packers. "It's the same offense, offensively. It is difficult to beat the same team twice, so we know going in that we really have to prepare well, practice well [and] make sure we're still studying these guys extremely well because they have a great offense. Going into this game, that game before doesn't matter anymore. The game last week [does not] matter anymore. We've just got to know to move forward and get ready to prepare to go out there and play these guys."
As for the Buccaneers' offense, they might do well to try to replicate what they did in New Orleans last week: run the ball. Green Bay is giving up 112.8 yards per game on the ground, which puts them at the middle of the pack as far as run defense goes. And when you get the ground game going, it opens things up for your offense as a whole – just as this week's opponent. The Packers are known for their usage of play action, which is predicated on establishing a solid ground game. Green Bay utilizes play action on 25.5% of passing plays knowing that their running back, Aaron Jones, who had 1,144 yards this season, is always a threat on the ground. So though the Packers are known more for Rodgers and their passing attack, you could say their offense still goes through the run game. And that's something the Buccaneers, also known for their prolific passing offense, have found success with, too.
"We love it," said running back Ronald Jones II when asked about the run game being an integral part of the overall offensive scheme, "Me, the O-line and all the guys always talk about staying balanced. We know what we have out there at quarterback. It's good to keep that balance and be able to impose our will on the defense."
And speaking of that quarterback, a conference championship is familiar territory to Tom Brady. He has been to the AFC title game an unfathomable 14 times in his career. This will be his first trip to the NFC Championship game, though, leading a brand-new team into these recently uncharted waters for Tampa Bay.
"I think the team has worked really hard to put ourselves in this position," said Brady. "Our coaches have done a great job preparing us for this moment. We've really come on strong here the last six weeks – played our best football of the year when we needed it the most. The Bye Week was really good for us – got a chance to get a little mental refresh [and] a physical refresh. Then, the team has done a great job coming together and performing and executing under pressure [with] two road playoff wins. It gives us a great opportunity to go on the road again to beat one of the great football teams in the league. The Packers were in the NFC Championship game last year – lost a tough one to San Francisco – and I know the type of team they are and what they're capable of. They've got a great offense – one of the best in the league – really talented defense, really well coached. That's how it should be – the two best teams in the conference should be getting together and seeing how it all goes down. I'm excited for it – we've still got a lot of preparation. We barely got started in practice today. We're going to need two more good days and then we'll be ready to go."
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