The Green Bay Packers are back in the NFC Championship Game for the second straight season. This year, the Packers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the winner advancing to Super Bowl LV. Green Bay opened the playoffs with a 32-18 win over the Rams last week. The Bucs eliminate the Saints in New Orleans 30-20 to set up this showdown at Lambeau Field.
The Packers lead the all-time regular season series between these two teams 32-22-1. These two teams first met in 1977 which was the Bucs second season in the league and they were division rivals from 1977 until 2001. The Packers and Buccaneers have met once before in the playoffs with the Packers beating Tampa Bay at Lambeau in 1997 21-7.
This is the first time the Packers are hosting the NFC Championship Game since 2007 and the first time Aaron Rodgers is starting the title game at home.
Here is a look at six key factors that will determine who wins Sunday’s game:
- Run the Ball Enough and Run It Inside
The Packers game plan in the first meeting between these two teams did not work well. They tried to run the ball to the outside early on and the speed of the Bucs linebackers, especially Lavonte David and Devin White, prevented the runners from getting to the edge.
The Packers also abandoned the run far too quickly. They had some success running the ball inside but ended up running only 21 times all game with some of that taking place after the outcome was no longer in doubt.
Too often, Aaron Rodgers audibled out of run plays at the line of scrimmage when RPOs (run-pass options) were called and the passes didn’t work well.
Green Bay’s internal offensive linemen are playing at an extremely high level right now with Corey Linsley and Elgton Jenkins earning All Pro and Pro Bowl honors and Lucas Patrick coming off one of his strongest games against the Rams.
The Packers need to run the ball enough to set up their play action passing game. Running the ball effectively has been a big part of the Packers recent success, especially late in the season. In fact, the Packers are averaging 163.9 yards per game on the ground during their seven-game winning streak and have gone over 100 yards in six of those games.
The Bucs run defense ranked first in the league at average yards rushing allowed per game with just 80.6. They may be further bolstered by the possible return of NT Vita Vea from the injured reserve. The Bucs designated him to return but it is not clear if he’ll play Sunday and if he does how many snaps he’ll be able to take.
If the Packers can run the ball consistently, they can open up the passing game and keep Tom Brady off the field. This is a recipe for success in this game.
- Get Pressure on Tom Brady
The Packers were unable to sack Brady in the first meeting between these two teams. In fact, they only managed four quarterback hits all game according to pro-football-reference.com.
The Bucs have a strong offensive line and allowed only 22 sacks all season. Tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs are both solid players and do a good job of preventing the pass rush from getting to the immobile Brady.
The Packers pass rush has improved down the stretch led by Za’Darius Smith. Preston Smith and Rashan Gary have also picked up their game during the final six weeks of the regular season and nose tackle Kenny Clark is also playing his best football down the stretch.
Brady has gone to short passes in recent weeks and had success doing that. The future Hall of Famer gets the ball away very quickly which helps neutralize opposing pass rushes. He hopes to set up some downfield splash plays by moving the ball consistently with short passes.
The Packers don’t need to sack Brady often, but they do need to get him off his rhythm and disrupt his timing on short passes and prevent him from connecting on long pass plays.
- Involve Davante Adams Early
The Bucs will try to take away Rodgers’ favorite receiver, Davante Adams. The Rams top-ranked defense tried to do that last week and the Packers were still able to gain nearly 500 yards of total offense.
If the Packers offense establishes Adams early, they can force the Tampa Bay defense to double Tae and open things up for MVS, Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan.
Adams is one of the best receivers in the game right now and he and Rodgers have outstanding chemistry. Look for Matt LaFleur to scheme Adams open early on some short passes and then look to open things up from there. The short passes must succeed despite the speed of the Bucs linebackers who helped limit the effectiveness of the short passing game in the first meeting back in October.
- Involve Other Receivers in the Passing Game
While the Packers need to get Adams involved early and often, they cannot rely exclusively on their top target to keep the passing game working effectively.
Last week, both Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard had key catches as did tight end Robert Tonyan. The Packers need to get these secondary receivers involved in the passing attack. Because of the attention paid to Adams, they may face only single coverage if the Bucs play man although zone is their preferred base defense.
The Packers may also want to throw to running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams who are both accomplished receivers. Getting these running backs the ball in space on short passes may be a way to negate the speed of the Bucs inside linebackers and it could help open up the run game and the longer pass game by keeping the Packers out of third-and-long situations.
The Green Bay offense works best when they spread the ball around to different targets. They will need to do this Sunday against the Bucs to be successful.
- Don’t Turn the Football Over
Rodgers threw only five interceptions all season but two of them came in the Week 6 loss to the Bucs. One of those interceptions was a pick-six with the second returned to the Green Bay two-yard line and led to a touchdown just one play later. The two picks were the turning point of the game.
Meanwhile, the Packers didn’t force any turnovers against the Bucs in the game, giving the Pack a minus-two turnover ratio in the game.
Green Bay was a plus-seven this season in turnover differential while the Bucs were a plus-eight. In a close game between two quality teams, winning the turnover battle will be a big key. If the Packers break even or better, they will have an excellent chance to win this football game.
- Protect Aaron Rodgers
The Bucs sent a flurry of blitz packages against the Packers in Week 6 and it worked exactly as they intended. The Green Bay offensive line struggled to adjust to the blitzes and stunts the defense threw at them in what was by far their worst performance of the season.
The Bucs were able to sack Rodgers four times and Tim Boyle once and they totaled 13 quarterback hits. The Packers must protect Rodgers and make sure he has time to make plays.
Expect the Packers to start the game with a short passing attack that emphasizes getting the ball away quickly to help neutralize the pass rush. The Packers offensive line is also playing at a much higher level since the Bucs game and has ranked as one of the best in the league this season.
Left tackle Billy Turner will have a challenge trying to contain edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul who led the team with 9.5 sacks.
The Bucs have several players with multiple sacks due to their blitz packages and talent on defense. Devin White (9), Shaquil Barrett (8) and old Rodgers nemesis Ndamukong Suh (6) each have at least six sacks on the season. The Green Bay offensive line must contain this pass rush and allow Rodgers time to read defenses and find the open receiver.
Only the Bucs and Carolina Panthers held the Green Bay offense to less than 300 yards this season. Green Bay’s top-ranked scoring offense needs Rodgers to have time to be at maximum efficiency.
These are two extremely talented teams and they belong in the NFC Championship Game. The Packers are slightly better on paper but the Bucs proved what they can do when they execute their game plan to perfection in Week 6.
The key to this game is whether Matt LaFleur learned from the last meeting between these two teams. The Packers offense got away from their plan and were stopped cold by a quick and talented Tampa Bay defense in the first meeting between these two teams.
If the Packers offense can move the football, they should find a way to win this game. Home field advantage will be a help to the Pack and the game-time temperature is expected to be in the mid-20s with a 50 percent chance of snow.
It won’t be easy and this game could go down to the final play, but the Packers will find a way to avenge their worst loss of the season and go to the Super Bowl for the first time in a decade.
Packers 27, Bucs 23
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