The Green Bay Packers are facing an opposing quarterback who has a wee bit of experience when it comes to playoff success and reaching Super Bowls. Here’s the NFL Recap breakdown of the Packers as they prepare to host Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game, scheduled for Sunday, January 24th at 3:05 PM.
Editor’s note — bookmark the main page on Pro Football Network for all of Mike’s thoughts in the full NFL Recap beyond this Conference Championship preview!
Aaron Rodgers has led the Green Bay Packers to the playoffs nine times and the NFC Championship four times in his career, but he hasn’t led them to the Super Bowl since 2010. Yet the 2020 Packers look different from the teams that came up short repeatedly over the past decade. It’s a more efficient Rodgers, a more creative coaching staff, a more aggressive organizational mindset, maybe even some increased urgency. So perhaps the results will be different, too.
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Conference Championship Preview, NFC: Green Bay Packers
How the Green Bay Packers got here
Saturday’s 32-18 victory over the Los Angeles Rams wasn’t quite as close as the score. The Packers took a 16-3 lead midway through the second quarter and then held the Rams at arm’s length for the rest of the game. They have not lost since the Indianapolis Colts defeated them 34-31 in overtime in Week 11.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers
This year’s version of Rodgers is more likely to play within head coach Matt LaFleur’s system and less likely to demand to speak to the manager after a receiver drops a pass than in the past.
Rodgers has become a more willing and effective short passer this season. Yet, he can still do all the things that make him a surefire Hall of Famer, from delivering pinpoint dimes 40 yards down the field to going into hurry-up mode to draw penalties (or assignment errors) when he catches the defense taking its time with substitutions.
Green Bay Packers’ weapons
Running back Aaron Jones had a quiet statistical season (“only” 1,104 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns) but put the Rams defense through the spin cycle on Saturday with 165 scrimmage yards and 2 touchdowns. Jones remains among the NFL’s best — and least heralded — all-purpose backs.
Davante Adams may be the NFL’s best all-around receiver. He got the better of Rams All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey (after the two were separated for some pregame chirping) with 9 catches for 66 yards and one short touchdown. Adams led the NFL in receiving touchdowns and finished second to Keenan Allen with 26 third-down conversions.
Robert Tonyan is Rodgers’ best weapon at tight end since Jermichael Finley. Tonyan is a fine red zone alternative to Jones and Adams (7 red zone touchdowns). He has big-play capability and provides Rodgers with a much-needed target he has actual confidence in.
The best that can be said about Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, and the rest of the Rodgers Dissatisfaction Brigade is that if Rodgers throws two perfect touchdown passes to any of them, there’s a high probability that at least one will be completed.
Green Bay Packers’ offensive line
All-purpose lineman Billy Turner has held his own at left tackle in relief of injured perennial Pro Bowler David Bakhtiari. That’s despite both the Rams and the Chicago Bears (in Week 17) doing everything they could to attack Turner. LaFleur and his staff have done a great job maintaining continuity despite having to shift linemen among various positions throughout the season. Rodgers’ experience, pocket presence, and mobility have also helped a smidge.
Green Bay Packers’ defense
At their best, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith apply consistent pressure. Cornerback Jaire Alexander shuts down one side of the field, and everyone else does just enough to prevent big plays and preserve leads. At their worst, coordinator Mike Pettine gets too cute, drops Preston Smith into coverage for inexplicable reasons. He exposes the weaknesses of a linebacker corps that couldn’t cover a pot if you set them loose in a lid factory.
We’ve seen much more of the good Packers defense than the bad one lately. It helps that the Packers were in the lead for an average of 38 minutes and 48 seconds per game during the regular season, the highest figure in the NFL. It’s easy to rush the passer, ignore the run and shrug off a few short completions over the middle when playing with the league.
Green Bay Packers’ special teams
Mason Crosby ranks 5th on the all-time list with 28 postseason field goals. Since you are dying to know the others in this Conference Championship preview — Adam Vinatieri (56), Stephen Gostkowski (41), David Akers (39), and Gary Anderson (32).
Something to watch out for — the Packers allowed two punt return touchdowns this season.
The Green Bay Packers can beat the Buccaneers if …
They can pressure Tom Brady with just the law firm of Smith & Smith. No exotic blitzes, no too-clever-by-half tactics for Brady to sniff out and outsmart. Rodgers also needs to reach into his bag of tricks to lure the over-aggressive Bucs defense to jump offsides or try to jump routes.
The Green Bay Packers will lose to the Bucs if …
Pettine dials up all sorts of three-man pass rushes and overcomplicated coverages for Brady to giggle at and destroy. The Packers offense also cannot suffer one of its periodic mini-strokes, as it did in the second quarter of that 38-10 disaster against the Buccaneers in Week 6. Keep going three-and-out (or getting intercepted) and handing Brady the ball with good field position. He will spend the entire second half in cruise control.
Everything we saw in the Divisional Round of the playoffs suggests that the Packers will crush the Buccaneers. Yet, everything we saw in Week 6, from the Packers since 2011 and Brady since the dawn of the millennium, suggests that Packers are in for another heartbreak. When it comes to predicting playoff games, it’s best to trust your eyes, trust the numbers, and ignore the storylines and the history. Even recent Packers playoff history. Even Tom Brady postseason history.
Conference Championship Preview, Early Prediction: Green Bay Packers defeat Tampa Bay Buccaneers.