Sunday afternoon's game between the undefeated Green Bay Packers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers not only features two of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time but two first-place NFC teams. Not that you were asking or give a darn, but for my money, Tom Brady is the greatest to ever throw a pass in the NFL while Aaron Rodgers is the most talented quarterback of all-time. There's a difference, I promise.
The Packers (4-0) are fresh off their radically early (but originally scheduled) bye week and sitting atop the NFC North with one of the conference's two perfect records thus far. So far, the Packers are proving just how dangerous they are in the second year of head coach Matt LaFleur's offense and with a rejuvenated Rodgers. Their offensive attack is one of the best and most balanced in the NFL. This week, The Pack will face their toughest test to date when they face the Bucs' dangerous defensive front seven.
The Buccaneers (3-2) are coming off a road loss to the Bears in which Bruce Arians might just burn the game tape. After jumping out to a 13-0 first-half lead last Thursday night, nothing went right for Tampa Bay. The Bucs blew their two-touchdown lead thanks to 11 penalties and some Apple Dumpling Gang-looking offense in the second half. Despite the ugly loss, the Bucs still find themselves in first place in the NFC South — albeit in a three-way tie with the Panthers and Saints. The Bucs are hoping the longer-than-usual layoff gives them time to heal up, especially on the offensive side of the ball where Brady is desperately missing some weapons.
Green Bay at Tampa Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 17 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: GB -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Pack attack is back
After years of what felt like wandering in the offensive abyss, there is no doubt, Green Bay's offense is one of the best in the league this season. They rank first in points per game (38), yards per play (6.8), points per drive (3.67), net yards per drive (45.7), time per drive (3:31), and percentage of point-scoring drives (64).
All those great stats per drive tell me one thing: the Packers have balance. That balance, of course, starts with Rodgers. Some folks say that Rodgers' game slipped the last two seasons after an injury-shortened 2017. Eh, maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it was bad scheme. Maybe he was 35 and 36 years old.
What can't be denied is that in 2020, the 37-year-old Rodgers is balling out — 70 percent completion rate, 1213 yards, 13 touchdowns, a 128.4 rating, and no picks. He leads the NFL in adjusted yards per pass (10.6) and net yards gained per attempt (8.3). Rodgers is looking like the two-time MVP of old, and he's been doing it without Davante Adams to throw to for the last two weeks. Adams practiced earlier in the week and could be available for Sunday.
Rodgers' fantastic early season is being matched by what has been a top-tier Packers' running game. The team is fourth in yards per rush (5.1) and fifth in rushing yards per game (150). Aaron Jones has been leading the charge on the ground for the Pack, ranking third in the league in yards per carry (5.8) and rushing yards per game (93.5).
If there is a knock against the Packers, it's been their schedule. Their first four opponents have a combined 4-12 record and none of them have much of a defense of which to speak. That changes against Tampa Bay's top running defense. The Bucs are averaging a league-low 2.7 yards per rush and 58.4 rushing yards rushing per game this season. Tampa also does a great job at getting to the quarterback, ranking fourth in sacks (17) and fifth in quarterback hits (33) and sack percentage (8.7).
Although they'll be without defensive tackle Vita Vea for the rest of the season, the Bucs front seven has plenty of weaponry with Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquill Barrett, and William Gholston to attack what has been a very clean Rodgers (3 sacks) this season. Watching these opposing forces go toe-to-toe on Sunday afternoon should be appointment viewing.
2. Bucs offense looking for a bounce-back
Like that of the Packers, the Buccaneers' offense is built on balance. Brady has his big-play target in Mike Evans, his possession receiver in Chris Godwin, reliable tight ends in Cameron Brate and Rob Gronkowski, and a dual-threat backfield with Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette. During their three-game win-streak, Brady the offense was hitting their stride, averaging 32.3 points during that run.
Last week against the Bears, with no Godwin or Fournette, the Bucs lost that balance and lost the game. Tampa kicked a field goal and scored their only touchdown in the first quarter before going completely flat and only managing three more field goals the rest of the game. The Bucs were especially bad on third downs and inside the red zone. They converted just four of their 14 third downs and scored just one touchdown in three red-zone trips.
The second half against the Bears was especially awful for the Bucs' offense. They tallied just 118 net yards in fives drives. Three of those drives resulted in 16 yards or less, and two drives concluded with a loss of two yards each. The Bucs' final two drives resulted in a punt and a turnover on downs and were a combined eight plays for 14 yards in 1:07 seconds of game time.
With Godwin's return still questionable, the Bucs can still course-correct against the Packers. Green Bay's defense has yet to face an offense as potent as Tampa Bay's and ranks 29th in completion rate allowed (72), 25th in quarterback rating allowed (107.2), and 25th in yards per rush allowed (4.8).
3. Third down, money down
Part of the Packers' offensive success this season has been their improvement on third downs. Last year, the Pack converted on only 36 percent of third downs, 23rd in the NFL. This year, Green Bay ranks third, converting at a 51 percent clip.
Again, the reformation starts with Rodgers. In 2019, the critics were right: Rodgers was bad on third down. He completed only 54 percent of his third-down throws, with an 87.5 rating, and 18 sacks. This season, he's great, completing 68 percent of passes, 50 percent of which move the chains, and posting an absurd 142.1 passer rating. And make no mistake, Rodgers will throw on third down, even against the Bucs' pass rush. The Packers have only run the ball six times on third down so far this season. Look for Rodgers to target his receivers on short, underneath routes that give his guys room to run, as the Bucs are third-worst in the NFL at giving up yards after the catch (617).
I noted above the Buccaneers' struggles on third down last week, converting only four times on 14 tries. But here's a little more on just how bad they were against the Bears, courtesy of Greg Auman of The Athletic.
The Bucs were just one for their last 11 third-down attempts. They picked up a grand total of one conversion in the second half. Of their six third-down tries in the second half, five of them required at least 12 yards to convert. Their average third-down yards to gain in the second half was 16. They faced third downs worth 27, 21, 17, 15, 12, and 6 yards in the second half.
If Tampa Bay has any shot against the Packers' high-scoring offense, the best thing to do is to keep them off the field. That starts by moving the chains.
This game should serve as a solid measuring stick for both squads as neither team has beaten an opponent with a winning record yet. With Adams' likely return and a week off to prepare, I like Rodgers and the efficiency of the Packers' offense in a tight one against the short-handed Bucs.
Prediction: Packers 26, Buccaneers 22
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.