The NFL's Championship Sunday will kick off with the Green Bay Packers hosting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game. At the forefront of this compelling matchup are two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.
Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers will go head-to-head for just the fourth time ever on Sunday (Brady leads 2-1). But the stakes will be much higher this time around in the first-ever playoff matchup between these future Hall of Famers. The intrigue also goes beyond Brady and Rodgers, as the two hottest teams in the NFC square off at frigid Lambeau Field with a trip to Super Bowl LV on the line. Who will be crowned NFC champions on Sunday in the playoff edition of the "Battle of the Bays?"
The Buccaneers (13-5) will be making their first appearance in the NFC title game since 2002, the same year that the franchise won its one and only Super Bowl. Following an 11-5 regular season that culminated in a second-place finish in the NFC South, Tampa Bay entered the postseason as a No. 5 seed. The Buccaneers proceeded to take care of business in the Wild Card Round with a 31-23 road win over Washington. That victory propelled the Bucs into last week's Divisional Round, where they would find redemption against a New Orleans team that had beaten them convincingly in each of their two regular-season meetings. Tampa Bay forced four turnovers and shut down Drew Brees and the Saints' offense on the way to a 30-20 victory.
Bruce Arians and his Buccaneers come to frigid Green Bay riding a six-game win streak, looking to become just the fifth team ever to win three consecutive road games to advance to the Super Bowl. If successful, they will become the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
The Packers (14-3) secured the top seed in the NFC with a conference-best 13-3 regular-season record, earning them an opening bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That seemed to pay dividends for the well-rested Packers last week in the Divisional Round, as they racked up 484 yards of total offense against the Rams' top-ranked defense to come away with a 32-18 victory to advance to their second NFC title game in as many years. A challenging matchup now awaits second-year head coach Matt LaFleur and his Packers, who must face a Buccaneers team that handed them their worst defeat of the season, a 38-10 beatdown in Tampa Bay back in Week 6.
Tampa Bay's dominance in that contest was palpable, giving the underdog Buccaneers plenty of reason to be confident heading into the NFC title game. But you'd be ill-advised to mention that to Arians, who has no intention of letting his team underestimate the red-hot Packers based on something that happened in October.
"It's the same thing as the Saints last week, having beaten us twice, pretty badly once, and we won that ballgame," Arians said earlier this week. "You can't fall into that trap of what happened last time. They're a much, much better football team, we're a much better football team. They're different right now. So, you'd better take care of today's work."
Arians is correct — this is not the same Green Bay squad that the Buccaneers pummeled back in October. The Packers have won seven in a row and feature the No. 1 scoring offense in the league (31.8 ppg). And unlike the Week 6 meeting, the Packers have the luxury of playing at home on Sunday, where they have lost just once in nine games. Can Green Bay claim its first NFC championship since 2011 and exact a little revenge in the process?
Sunday's NFC Championship Game will mark the 57th meeting all-time between the Buccaneers and Packers. The Packers lead the series 33-22-1 overall and won the only previous postseason matchup, a 21-7 victory at home in the Divisional Round of the 1997-98 playoffs. That Green Bay team, led by head coach Mike Holmgren and quarterback Brett Favre, went on to Super Bowl XXXII where the Packers lost to Denver 31-24.
NFC Championship Game: Tampa Bay at Green Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 24 at 3:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Packers -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Green Bay passing game vs. Tampa Bay's pass defense
It's been a remarkable season for Green Bay's high-octane passing attack. Aaron Rodgers earned first-team All-Pro honors for his efforts — completing 70.7 percent of his pass attempts for 4,299 yards. The NFL MVP favorite also tossed a league-best 48 touchdown passes against just five interceptions and posted a 121.5 passer rating — the second-highest single-season mark in NFL history. But he couldn't have done it without the help of first-team All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams, who set a single-season franchise record with 115 receptions and an NFL-leading 18 touchdowns. Adams also racked up 1,374 receiving yards despite missing two whole games and parts of others.
That success has translated into the postseason, where Rodgers lit up the Rams' top-ranked pass defense last week to the tune of 296 passing yards, two touchdowns (also ran one in), no interceptions, and a 108.1 passer rating. Adams also found success against the Rams, hauling in nine catches for 66 yards and a score in his high-profile matchup against fellow All-Pro, cornerback Jalen Ramsey. And the banged-up Green Bay offensive line did a phenomenal job containing the Rams' vaunted pass rush, allowing zero sacks.
Rodgers and Co. have carved up just about every pass defense put in front of them this season, but there was one glaring exception. Back in October, Tampa Bay held Rodgers to just 160 passing yards, a season-low 45.7 completion rate, and a season-low 35.4 passer rating. It was the only game during the regular season in which Rodgers did not throw a touchdown pass. And it was one of just three games all season in which Adams was held out of the end zone. Rodgers also was picked off twice, sacked five times, and took 13 quarterback hits in the loss.
The scary part is that the Tampa Bay pass defense shut down Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered passing attack in a similar fashion just last week. Brees threw for just 160 yards and one touchdown while getting picked off three times en route to a dismal 38.1 passer rating. That doesn't exactly bode well for Rodgers and a Green Bay passing game that has already seen what this defense is capable of when it is performing at its best. That being said, the Buccaneers haven't been the model of consistency when it comes to defending the pass — ranking just 21st during the regular season in that regard. And it will be a very tall order to shut down Rodgers and his weapons a second time, especially in the friendly confines of Lambeau Field.
2. Buccaneers passing game vs. Packers pass defense
Tom Brady has enjoyed great success in his first year in a Buccaneer uniform. In addition to leading Tampa Bay to its first trip into the postseason since 2007, Brady has put up some of his best numbers in years — completing 65.7 percent of passes for 4,633 yards with 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has been particularly hot over his last five contests (including two playoff starts) — racking up 14 touchdown passes with just one interception while averaging a ridiculous 343.4 passing yards per game during that span. Brady also has made great use of an elite group of weapons — headlined by star wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, along with favorite target Rob Gronkowski and fellow tight end Cameron Brate. Brady won't have Antonio Brown, however, as he has been ruled out because of a knee injury.
Brady and Co. will be paired against a Green Bay pass defense that ranked seventh in the NFL during the regular season, allowing 221.2 passing yards per game. The Packers looked even better in their postseason debut last week against the Rams, limiting Jared Goff to 148 net passing yards and one touchdown. A Packers' pass rush that generated 41 sacks during the regular season, led by second-team All-Pro edge rusher Za'Darius Smith (13.5 sacks), did its part against the Rams, producing four sacks and seven QB hits. That sets up an intriguing matchup in the trenches on Sunday against a Tampa Bay offensive line that allowed 22 sacks (fourth-fewest in the NFL) during the regular season and surrendered none against the Packers back in Week 6.
Despite the stellar pass protection and lopsided score in that matchup, Brady's performance wasn't spectacular. But he was quite efficient — completing 17-of-27 pass attempts for 166 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Brady will likely need better numbers to give his team the best chance to come out on top in freezing Green Bay on Sunday. However, if anyone can make that happen, it's Brady. He's not only the greatest postseason quarterback in NFL history, but he's also one of the best cold-weather signal-callers to ever play the game.
3. Jones vs. Jones
Green Bay's Aaron Jones put together a strong regular-season campaign, averaging 5.5 yards per carry on his way to 1,104 total rushing yards and nine touchdowns. He also put up solid numbers in the passing game with 47 receptions for 355 yards and a pair of scores. However, Jones struggled mightily against the Buccaneers in their Week 6 matchup, producing a season-low 15 rushing yards on 10 attempts. And he will have his work cut out for him again on Sunday against a Tampa Bay run defense that allowed just 80.6 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry during the regular season (No. 1 in the NFL).
However, hope is not completely lost for Green Bay's star running back on Sunday. He does bring some momentum into the NFC title game after making easy work of a stout Rams run defense last week finishing with 99 yards and a touchdown while averaging 7.7 yards per carry. And he will have plenty of help in the backfield from Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon, as the Packers rumbled for a total of 188 yards on the ground in their Divisional Round victory.
Despite Tampa Bay's overall lack of success running the football during the regular season (28th in the NFL at 94.9 ypg), Ronald Jones II averaged 5.1 yards per carry and compiled close to 1,000 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in just 14 games. And one of his best performances happened to come in the big win against the Packers on Oct. 18. Jones ran for 113 yards and two scores in the Week 6 matchup. He could find similar success against the Packers' 13th-ranked run defense on Sunday. Green Bay also will have to contend with Leonard Fournette, who has filled in admirably during the playoffs with Jones working his way back from a quad injury.
It’s difficult to dismiss the 38-10 throttling that the Buccaneers laid on the Packers during the regular season. You add in the greatest postseason quarterback in NFL history, surrounded by a standout supporting cast on both sides of the football, and it's hard not to like the Buccaneers' chances to pull off the upset on Sunday. However, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have been playing on a different level during their current seven-game win streak. And it will be incredibly difficult for the Buccaneers to replicate the success they had against the Packers back in October. Green Bay also has home-field advantage this time around, and the Packers should gain an even bigger edge with a forecast that is calling for snow and temperatures in the 20s — a far cry from sunny Tampa Bay. This one could truly go either way, but the Packers look like the team to beat on Sunday. Green Bay squeaks out a narrow victory to advance to Super Bowl LV.
Prediction: Packers 28, Buccaneers 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.