If I need to hype you up for this matchup, you’re probably in the wrong place. This is the NFC Championship game, and the second time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers have met this season.
The first matchup didn’t go the Packers’ way. They got off to an early 10-0 lead before allowing the Bucs to score 38 unanswered points. The Packers wrapped up the 1st quarter with 134 yards of offense but finished the game with only 201.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, ended the first quarter with only 22 offensive yards but finished with 324. Aaron Rodgers’ two interceptions in the second quarter flipped the momentum in favor of the hosting Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Packers were never able to recover. It was a fairly epic collapse that we’re all going to have to re-live multiple times prior to Sunday afternoon.
Since that game the Packers and the Bucs have taken very different routes to the NFC Championship game. The Packers, since losing to the Bucs, have gone 9-2, on their way to the #1 seed in the conference. They cruised by the Rams on Saturday night, humbling the best defense in the NFL.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, however, had to fight through two rounds of playoff competition to get here, though that feels like an overstatement. The Bucs got the golden ticket, pulling the worst playoff team we’ve seen in decades – the 7-9 Washington Football Team. While WFT kept it close for awhile, it was clear who the better team was – the Bucs won 31-23.
In the Divisional Round, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers found themselves in New Orleans, facing a Saints’ team that never really showed up. To be honest, the Bucs didn’t look much better. Neither defense did anything special but both offenses still struggled in this one.
The Bucs forced two Saints’ turnovers and were gifted two more – that was the determining factor in this game. The Buccaneers’ offense did just enough to capitalize on those turnovers, and Tom Brady was efficient but very unspectacular. In case you missed it, the Buccaneers won 30-20 and will now travel to Green Bay to take on the Packers.
What has changed about the Bucs’ gameplan since the Packers visited them in Tampa Bay?
In the first Looking Ahead installment of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I highlighted the gameplan of Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich. Not much has changed since then. This offense still operates out of singleback formations, moving Brady from Shotgun to under-center, regardless of down and distance. They began the season with too many run-calls on 1st down but have since found a balance with play-action.
The Bucs’ biggest change, however, has been their shift from ‘12’ to ‘11’ personnel. Antonio Brown was watching games from his couch during week 6 but he’s since found a big role on this offense. The three-wide of Brown, Mike Evans, and Chris Godwin is arguably the best in the NFL but the Bucs aren’t ignoring the tight end position.
Rob Gronkowski sees TE1 snaps but Cameron Brate still has a role on this offense, evident in his 6 targets and 4 catches to Gronk’s 5 targets and 1 catch against the Saints. Gronk hasn’t been relegated to a blocking role yet but Bucs fans likely wouldn’t complain if he was.
Even with Gronk’s decline, Tom Brady still has a surplus of productive targets. He’s been efficient in dealing the ball to those targets, earning the second-best overall grade of all quarterbacks from Pro Football Focus.
While we’ve seen a decline in the throwing arm of many aging QBs, Drew Brees is a perfect example, Brady can still drop it in the pocket on a deep-route. He’s 41 of 105 for 1,380 yards, 13 TDs, and 5 interceptions this year on throws of 20+ air yards.
As a team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended the regular season with the 7th most yards of offense and the 3rd most points scored. Their defense has been equally efficient.
The Bucs’ defense ranked 6th in yards allowed and 8th in points allowed. Their calling-card is run defense – the unit ranks 1st in both rushing yards allowed per game and per rush. This has been a consistent characteristic of Todd Bowles’ defenses.
With plenty of run-blitz calls, this defense is not only able to stop the run but also rush the passer. They lead the league in pressures, with Shaquill Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul creating a formidable edge-bending combination. William Gholston and of course Ndamukong Suh have done well collapsing the pocket, adding another 50+ pressures each.
This is a dangerous defensive front but it doesn’t stop there. Lavonte David is the incumbent star but Devin White is the up-and-comer at the second level. David is still an incredible coverage linebacker and he quarterbacks this defense. That allows White to roam the field and make plays – and make plays he has. White recorded 140 total tackles, 18 for loss, with 9 sacks. It’s been a coming-out party for White.
Bowles has done a good job of masking the role of the players along the front and he’s put his defensive backs in a position for success as well. Lately, he’s emphasized more zone coverage with a lot of Cover-3 against three-wide formations, which has produced good results for this pass defense. The 3 interceptions on Brees make that perfectly clear.
I usually reserve this section for three factors but I’m gonna highlight one – Special Teams. With special teams accounting for anywhere from 15-30% of the total plays per game, these units have the potential to make a dramatic impact on the game.
That’s been obvious if you’ve watched any Packers or Bucs games this year. Both of these teams have struggled to cover both punts and kickoffs. On the flip, neither team has offered much in returning punts and kicks.
While Mason Crosby has been perfect kicking field goals this year, he seems to be taking XPs for granted, missing 4 of his 63 attempts. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ryan Succop has been a question mark. He’s been successful on 28 of his 31 field goal attempts but has missed 5 of his 57 XP attempts.
The Packers level the playing field with JK Scott’s struggles punting the ball. While Scott still has the hang-time, his distance, location, and general contact with the football have been wildly inconsistent. Bradley Pinion has been much more consistent for the Bucs, with just one game under 40 yards per punt this year.
Special teams’ struggles have not yet had a lethal impact on the result of a game for the Packers or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but we have to figure that they will soon enough. Until then, we’ll focus on the core units of the Packers and the Bucs.
On paper, the Packers are the better team. The Bucs have a top-ten defense but I’ll take the Packers’ number one offense over that unit. The Bucs offense is good, not great and should be able to score against the Packers’ defense but not at will. It may take time for the Bucs to find a foothold against this new-look defense.
At Lambeau Field, with potentially inclement weather, give me the Packers to cover the 4-point spread. We saw what the Packers’ offense was able to do against the Tennessee Titans in the snow four weeks ago. I’m not expecting an ass-whopping to quite that degree but I will say that I expect the Packers to cover the spread.
We’re 5 days away from Championship Sunday – plenty of time for us to pump up our anxiety level. Pour another cup of coffee and get your scrolling thumb ready. We’ll have all the content for you at Game On Wisconsin.