NFL 2020 NFC Championship Game: Buccaneers at Packers Part II

Few games in the NFL actually amount to a legacy game, but this is absolutely one for Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That’s a scary thought when most will focus on the result instead of how each actually plays, but this is undoubtedly a big opportunity for the No. 12 in green. Rodgers did not reach the Super Bowl in his first two MVP seasons, and this is looking like the third opportunity, but it is also his first NFC Championship Game at home after playing four of them on the road. He is still looking for that first signature performance in this round of the playoffs, a round that has also seen a lot of subpar Brady performances. But can the Packers capitalize on any mistakes unlike the Saints defense on Sunday?

Say what you will about the lack of homefield advantage this year, but Green Bay just doesn’t seem to turn the ball over at Lambeau Field like it does elsewhere. Seven of Green Bay’s league-low 11 giveaways were on the road this year. Rodgers has thrown one interception in seven home playoff games and that happened nine years ago. Rodgers has had 14 of his 19 multi-interception games on the road, including three in Tampa Bay where he’s also had half of his four career games with three interceptions.

He damn near threw four picks in Tampa Bay in Week 6 this year, the 38-10 loss that will either prove to be the harbinger of Green Bay’s undoing or the true anomaly of a Super Bowl season. The Packers scored at least 22 points in every other game this season.

If you are wondering why the title says Part II, that is partially a reference to this being a Week 6 rematch as both Conference Championship Games are this weekend, but also because I already wrote a preview for this game at Sportsbook Review. You should read that for details on what led to 38-10 and the individual matchups this weekend. I’m using this space for more of my personal opinions on this game’s place in history.

For my first preview of Buccaneers-Packers, click here.

First, some quick notes on Conference Championship Games that were rematches from the regular season since 1978 that can apply to both games on Sunday:

  • The playoff record for the team that won the last meeting is 34-24 (.586) as the 49ers swept the Packers last year, but the Chiefs came back to beat the Titans.
  • The home team in the playoffs is 39-19 (.672).
  • Teams like Kansas City who played the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 20-8 (.714).
  • Teams like Kansas City who won the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 12-2 (.857), but the two losers were Andy Reid’s 2003 Eagles (vs. Panthers) and the 2007 Packers (vs. Giants).
  • The playoff record for a road loser switching venues in the playoffs like Green Bay this week is 8-6 (.571) as the Chiefs were able to beat the Titans that way last year but lost to Tom Brady’s Patriots at home the previous year.
  • The team who was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups (2020 Chiefs and Packers apply) is 21-10 (.677) ATS and 24-7 (.774) SU in the title game.

Buccaneers at Packers (-3.5)

Well, we are basically where I expected we would be. Your move, Aaron.

With the roster Tampa Bay has, you would have expected a better record than 11-5 this year. But some spotty performances and getting owned twice by the Saints led to a No. 5 seed in the tournament. That’s not so bad when you get to open with the worst division winner in NFL history and Drew Brees on his last legs in a quiet Superdome.

The highlight of the season has always been that 38-10 demolition of Rodgers and the Packers, which was actually a preview of how the Bucs ended up finally beating the Saints in the playoffs last week. The defense pounced on interceptions and set up multiple touchdowns for Tampa Bay while Brady didn’t throw for 200 yards again, just like in Week 6. The difference on Sunday from Week 6 is that the Buccaneers didn’t have a touchdown drive over 40 yards. Even Bill Belichick’s girlfriend can see the defense won that game.

I cannot see it happening again that way. Rodgers came up a tackle at the 2-yard line short of throwing back-to-back pick-sixes, or plays he had twice in his entire career. That seemed to mentally break him that day, and then the physical beatdown came with the Tampa defense getting good pressure and four sacks on him. Green Bay’s had the best pass protection all year, but that day it was Todd Bowles’ aggressive defense getting the upper hand.

I was already reviewing this game in December in anticipation we’d see the playoff rematch, and it was then I remembered just why I was so disgusted by Rodgers and Green Bay’s performance. It looked like so many old Green Bay losses where the team goes on the road, gets punched in the mouth, and just crumbles. The way Rodgers started missing open receivers and nearly having two more interceptions that Tampa Bay dropped, it was a pure meltdown and it felt like he gave up in the second half. That game was the main reason I was so against giving him the MVP for this season, but it does remain his only poor performance of 2020 so far.

Rodgers now must overcome that defense to get to the Super Bowl. That is only fair in my book. This is the matchup we deserve with the way the Saints and Seahawks limped across the finish line. It’s like the opposite of 1996 when Brett Favre avoided the Cowboys, a team he always struggled with, in the playoffs. Dallas beat Green Bay 21-6 in Week 12, but Favre never had to beat them in the playoffs to get his only Super Bowl win. It would not feel right for Rodgers to avoid Tampa Bay this season.

This is a game where the home quarterback needs to hold serve. When Peyton Manning and Brady met five times in the playoffs, the home team won all five games with the last three AFC title games going to Manning’s teams. Brees just blew his only shot at Brady in the playoffs. Rodgers cannot have a second stinker, but go figure, the only defense that has shown the ability to shut him down this year comes attached with Brady, who has the only defense playing this Sunday with the defensive profile you’d expect from a Super Bowl champion with the other three units being pretty mediocre.

Throw in the Super Bowl being in Tampa with a trash Florida governor cocky enough to allow that stadium to fill with fans, and yeah, you can see where this is going. (Note: attendance may end up capped at 20%, but do not underestimate corporate greed).

Unless Tampa starts slowly again and Rodgers dunks on them early, this is going to be a tough one. Remember, before the collapse in Week 6 the Packers were leading 10-0 in the second quarter and had the ball.

It seems for over a decade, many people picked a Rodgers vs Brady Super Bowl before the season even starts, only for it to never happen. This is the closest we’ll get to it now with them sharing the conference, but there were some close calls before. It probably should have happened in 2010 or 2011, but each team experienced a major upset at home in the divisional round those years: New England to the 2010 Jets, Green Bay to the 2011 Giants.

Then there was the 2014 season. They met for the first time in the regular season and Rodgers pulled out a solid 26-21 game that was a breakout moment for a rookie named Davante Adams (121 yards). We could have had this again in the Super Bowl, but the Packers blew a 16-0 lead in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, most notably failing to recover an onside kick that probably sets up a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl.

The more I think about that postseason now, the more I’ve come to realize in hindsight that the 2014 Seahawks are my most hated team of the last decade. There is nothing I personally object to with that team. I am generally pro-Russell Wilson, pro-Pete Carroll, and Seattle was the team I picked to become the NFL’s next dynasty before the 2013 season started.

But the path that 2014 Seattle team set the league on aggravates me so much. They took their injured Legion of Boom secondary from that game into the Super Bowl, teased us with a good start against the Patriots, then blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter in one of the worst ways possible. Yes, Malcolm Butler’s interception at the 1-yard line is the costliest interception in NFL history. This also makes for one of the most annoying comparisons ever when people compare the 2013 Broncos’ performance in the Super Bowl against the best Seattle team to New England’s in 2014 when Seattle was not the same.

Seriously, I might hate Brandon Bostick more than I hate Hank Baskett. (If you know your botched onside kick recoveries, good for you).

Seattle has yet to have much postseason success since that game, the same one that helped end a nine-year drought of titles for the Patriots and led to winning two more. In hindsight, I would have much rather seen Rodgers and the Packers get their shot in Super Bowl XLIX than Seattle’s choke job. Rodgers was not fully healthy late in that season after Ndamukong Suh, another old foe he’ll have to deal with this Sunday, cheaply stepped on him with Detroit.

Maybe Rodgers has an ineffective Super Bowl against one of Belichick’s best pass defenses, and Brady gets the win anyway. All I know is the chance for Rodgers to win that game could have made the ring count 3-2 at the time, and we know it’s the easiest thing in the world to discount Brady’s first ring. Maybe “Prime Aaron Rodgers” doesn’t fall off in 2015 if he’s coming off a second Super Bowl MVP season.

That postseason was a huge turning point for the league. This one can be too, but a lot of that depends on Patrick Mahomes’ health and the Chiefs. For more on that game, click here.

Now six years later, Rodgers is still searching for that second Super Bowl appearance. Brees was in a similar boat with his own history of playoff disappointment. It should have been him instead of Jared Goff and the Rams challenging the Patriots in 2018, but that’s what happens when you get the worst no-call in NFL history to go against you. Still, Brees had another shot on Sunday and played his first terrible playoff game and maybe the worst game he’s had in a Saints uniform. Sadly, it will likely be his final NFL game as he retires at 42.

But Rodgers isn’t nearing the end yet. He’s playing at a very high level and this is a complete offense with a running game they’ll need to continue getting huge production from, especially against a tough Buccaneers defense. There may also be considerable snow in this game with the Packers already impressing in those conditions with a 40-14 win over Tennessee in December.

Historically, home teams do very well in freezing temperatures at home in the playoffs against teams not used to those conditions, though Green Bay has had a few high-profile losses over the years (2002 Falcons, 2004 Vikings, 2013 49ers).

38-10 aside, I am fairly confident in Rodgers playing well in this game. Justin Herbert did a great job against this Tampa Bay defense before the Chargers did their usual act of blowing a 17-point lead. Ditto for Matt Ryan and the Falcons, who twice scored 27 points late in the season on Tampa. Taylor Heinicke didn’t even know he was going to start until late in the week and threw for over 300 yards in a playoff game for one of the worst offenses in the league. I know Brees just had that brutal game, but before this Tampa defense broke his ribs, he embarrassed them that night in Week 9’s 38-3 win. Even Daniel Jones had many open receivers against this defense and should have been able to win that game, a 25-23 loss on Monday night.

I really want to pick the Packers to answer 38-10 in a huge way here. For once, let’s see Brady play a historic offense without Bill Belichick figuring out a way to make them look impotent, but instead for them to run up the score to 44 or more. You know, something that’s happened three times to Rodgers in the playoffs and not once to Brady in 342 career starts, which is unheard of.

But then I think about how defeated Rodgers looked in Week 6, and how his last six playoff exits have all been to teams he lost to in the regular season. How Matt LaFleur was not impressive at all in playing the 49ers a second time in last year’s NFC Championship Game, a 37-20 loss. How this defense is unlikely to defend all these receivers as well as the Saints did. How Ronald Jones rushed for over 100 yards in Week 6 and looked very good, along with Leonard Fournette, in New Orleans on Sunday. How no one is even covering Cameron Brate this postseason. How Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are likely to make much bigger impacts this week. Maybe Antonio Brown too if he’s healthy.

Then I just think about the general fortune of Rodgers-led teams in the playoffs compared to Brady-led teams, and I have a bad feeling about this one.

Like as if my claims of Rodgers folding when a team makes it tough on him come true again, or that his stat-padding from the 1-yard line means the game is going to end after he throws four straight incompletions from the 1. No, not a Malcolm Butler interception repeat, but just four straight misses after leading one of the most effective red zone offenses this century. Or Mason Crosby misses several kicks after getting shaken up last week. Or Marques Valdes-Scantling drops three drive-extending passes on third down – that might be the most realistic one.

I think this season deserves a Packers-Chiefs Super Bowl, a rematch of Super Bowl I. This would be between the two No. 1 seeds and the first (if not last) meeting between the two best quarterbacks in the game right now. But I can’t help but think the events of last Sunday were the football gods throwing up the middle finger at me again.

I’ll save the rants for Sunday night if necessary, but one thing I feel like I can count on is that it is unlikely Rodgers and Brady will both play great on Sunday.

Remember when Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes in Week 3 was going to be the Game of the Year? Whoops, only one MVP showed up. Look at the other matchups of note. A high-quality quarterback duel didn’t happen in Week 6 for Rodgers-Brady or even for Allen-Mahomes. It didn’t happen when Rodgers and Brady met in 2018. It didn’t happen three times this year between Brady and Brees. It never happened in five playoff games between Manning and Brady. It didn’t happen in the Super Bowl when Joe Montana faced two Cincinnati MVP winners (Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason) or Hall of Famers Dan Marino or John Elway. Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger had one of the great ones, but it was a regular season game in 2009 and not Super Bowl XLV the following year.

The only playoff game in NFL history where both quarterbacks passed for 400 yards happened in 1981 and it involved Don Strock, who didn’t even start the game. There is a reason 2009 Matthew Stafford vs. Brady Quinn once ranked in the top 10 for a show about the greatest quarterback duels in NFL history.

Maybe I’m selling Rodgers short though. After all, he is part of one of the six duels in playoff history where both quarterbacks threw at least three touchdowns and had a 100+ passer rating. He and Kurt Warner in 2009 are the only pair that will be in the Hall of Fame too.

Games like this are expected to be shootouts or well-played classics, but one guy usually blows the other away before halftime and we’re left watching a dud, or neither quarterback plays well and the other players become the determining factor of who wins and who loses, like we saw with Bucs-Saints on Sunday.

For all the impressive things Rodgers has done in this rebirth season, I’m not sure he has learned how to “activate the will of those around him” as only Brady, King of Kings, can.

Final: Buccaneers 34, Packers 24

One thought on “NFL 2020 NFC Championship Game: Buccaneers at Packers Part II

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s