Tom Brady spent his entire career in the AFC, going to 13 conference title games in 18 healthy seasons, removing the one year he missed because of an ACL injury.
Then he popped over to the NFC, and presto, Brady has a forlorn franchise in Tampa Bay in the conference championship for the first time in nearly two decades. As a Jets fan conditioned to dislike all things Patriots, it’s still impossible for me to not like and root for Brady.
But what about Aaron Rodgers? Imagine this: You carry your team to a 13-3 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship last season, and what do you get? Your team drafts a QB in the first round. You could pout and go into a shell like Carson Wentz has in Philadelphia, or you could eviscerate the competition, win the MVP award and take your team back to the conference title game.
This NFC Championship matchup (3:05 p.m. ET, FOX) is the stuff dreams are made of.
And your dream could be realized by winning $500,000 or a Ford F-150 truck in this week’s FOX Bet Super 6 contest. Just download the app and answer six questions about the Bucs-Packers, and you’ll be in the running for those prizes.
Let’s break down the six questions for Sunday’s matchup:
1. How many completions will Brady and Rodgers combine for? The choices: 0-38, 39-42, 43-46, 47-50, 51-55, 56-plus
If you’re into game theory, assume everyone will be looking at the largest numbers in this showdown between two of the greatest QBs ever to play the position. I’ll look at the other end of the spectrum. In their earlier meeting in October, for instance, Rodgers completed 16 (season low) and Brady 17 (second-fewest this season), but it was a blowout win for the Bucs.
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles loves to send the blitz (235 times, second in the NFL), but don’t be surprised if he calls off the dogs, refuses to give Rodgers anything deep and concedes the run. In the teams’ previous meeting, Bowles blitzed his linebackers while dropping defensive linemen into coverage. Rodgers wasn’t ready.
In Green Bay’s loss to the Colts, Indianapolis offered another blueprint. The Colts allowed four first-half pass plays of 20-plus yards but adjusted to more zone and permitted just one in the second half. This seems like 20-22 completions for Rodgers and 17-20 for Brady. THE PICK: 39-42
2. Which team will have the most receptions and by how many?The choices for the margin: 0-1, 2, 3, 4, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 11-12, 13-plus
It’s very early in the week, but the temperatures at Lambeau look to be in the low 20s, and there’s a chance for some wind and snow. That obviously could impact the Bucs negatively, as Brady’s arm strength, at age 43, isn’t what it once was. Brady hit only one of five deep passes against the Saints indoors last week, and his deep passing numbers this season are skewed by eight home games in sunny Florida.
Also, the Packers feature the top-rated cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus, Jaire Alexander. Expect Alexander to match up against Mike Evans, further limiting Brady’s receiving options. It’s unclear as of now if Antonio Brown will play after a knee injury limited him to two targets and one catch on 27 snaps against the Saints. THE PICK: Green Bay by 3
3. Which team will have the most rushing yards and by how many?The choices for the margin: 0-5, 6-13,14-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45-59, 60-79, 80-104, 105-plus
The focus from many will be on Aaron Jones being held to 15 yards on 10 carries in the teams’ first meeting. More interesting: Leonard Fournette was inactive for Tampa. The Bucs have quietly shown their hand the past two games: They have “saved” Fournette for the postseason. He appeared in 12 games this season, and the most carries he had in a game was 15 (against the Giants). He had 19 for 93 yards at Washington in the NFC wild-card game and 17 attempts for 63 against the Saints.
Yes, Ronald Jones missed the Washington game because of injury, but he returned to carry 13 times in New Orleans. The Thunder (Fournette) and Lightning (Jones) vibe is real. You don’t want to have 43-year-old Brady trying to keep up with the league MVP, and we’ve seen the Packers’ defense struggle against the run, giving up three 100-yard rushers this season.
The Bucs’ run defense, which gets standout DT Vita Vea back from injury, is very real (first in efficiency), and the return of linebacker Devin White from COVID-19 helped bottle up Saints star Alvin Kamara. THE PICK: Tampa Bay by 60-79
4. Which team will have the most receiving yards and by how many?The choices for the margin: 0-9,10-24, 25-39, 40-54, 55-74, 75-94, 95-114, 115-plus
It’s tough to go against Rodgers right now. He will have the best receiver on the field (Davante Adams), the better offensive line, the better running back and home-field advantage. Toss in the always fun “revenge game” narrative, and you have a scenario in which Rodgers slices and dices the Bucs secondary.
The press coverage strategies that confounded Drew Brees and the Saints won’t necessarily work against the Packers. Their speed and route running, combined with Rodgers’ ability to read and react to defenses, is unmatched. The Bucs emptied the defensive playbook in the early-season throttling of the Packers, and Rodgers struggled. It won’t happen again. The PICK: Packers by 25-39
5. Which team will kick the longest field goal, and how many yards will it be?The choices for the distance: 0-33, 34-39, 40-42, 43-45, 46-47, 48-49, 50-52, 53-54, 55-plus
Mason Crosby has been with the Packers since 2007. They trust him. He’s 4-for-4 on field goals of more than 50 yards this season, and he hasn’t missed a field goal all season (16-for-16).
Meanwhile, Tampa’s Ryan Succop hasn’t attempted a field goal of 40-plus yards in the postseason (limited sample of two games), but his recent history beyond 40 is troubling. This season, he has been terrific (7-for-9), but he lost his job in Tennessee last season because he missed four field goals from 40-49 yards in the first six games. Succop has made one field goal of longer than 50 yards since Oct. 8, 2018. That lone kick was, ironically, in the fourth-quarter blowout against the Packers this season. THE PICK: Packers, 43-45 yards
6. Which team wins and by how many points?The choices for the margin: 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12, 13-15, 16-18, 19-21, 22-25, 26-plus Green Bay answered all the questions about its 31st-ranked schedule with a convincing victory over the Rams last weekend. The Packers scored on their first five drives, averaged 6.7 yards per play and punished the fourth-best defense in the NFL by DVOA.
In walks the fifth-ranked defense, which benefitted greatly from four turnovers last week against the Saints, including three in positive territory. Here are the QBs the Bucs have faced during their hot streak: the 42-year-old Brees, who hasn’t been the same QB since his return from his rib injury; fourth-string QB Taylor Heinicke in Washington; Matt Ryan in a meaningless Week 17 game for Atlanta; David Blough and Chase Daniel after Detroit starter Matt Stafford went out; and Ryan again.
The last time the Bucs faced an MVP candidate, Patrick Mahomes threw for 462 yards and three TD passes. The Bucs’ secondary is in trouble, and unless Tampa’s running back duo of Jones and Fournette can consistently have success to play keep-away from Aaron Rodgers, the Packers will be going back to the Super Bowl for the first time in a decade. THE PICK: Packers by 7-9
Prizes of $500,000 and a Ford F-150 truck are on the line in this week’s FOX Bet Super 6 contest. Just download the app and answer six questions about the Bucs-Packers, and you’ll be in the running!