Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers host Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game Sunday.
On Jan. 20, 2008, quarterback Brett Favre was in his 16th season with the Green Bay Packers. Mike McCarthy was in his second year as Green Bay’s head coach. And Ted Thompson was in his third full season as the Packers’ general manager.
Green Bay hosted the NFC Championship that day and suffered one of the toughest defeats in franchise history, a 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants.
Today, quarterback Aaron Rodgers is in his 16th season with Green Bay. Matt LaFleur is in his second year as Green Bay’s head coach and Brian Gutekunst is in his third year as the Packers’ G.M.
Much like that day 13 years ago, Green Bay is set to host an NFC Championship Game Sunday when the Packers (14-3) meet Tampa Bay (13-5) at 2:05 p.m. The Packers just hope this game goes better than the 2007 title game — despite the eerie similarities between Green Bay’s central figures.
“I thought the focus and concentration’s been there, the energy has been there,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said Friday. “It’s the same mentality as we’ve had that’s gotten us to this point. It’s finding a way to go 1-0.”
In Tampa Bay, quarterback Tom Brady was relishing the trip to Lambeau Field.
“I think the team has worked really hard to put ourselves in this position,” Brady said. “Our coaches have done a great job preparing us for this moment. We’ve really come on strong here the last six weeks – played our best football of the year when we needed it the most.
“The team has done a great job coming together and performing and executing under pressure (with) two road playoff wins. It gives us a great opportunity to go on the road again to beat one of the great football teams in the league.”
Tampa Bay routed Green Bay, 38-10, in Week 6 when the game was played at Raymond James Stadium. The Packers are a 3.5-point favorite this time with the game at Lambeau Field.
Game time temperature is expected to be 29 degrees. Approximately 2-4 inches of snow was expected to fall Saturday night into Sunday, but that’s expected to be out of the area by kickoff.
Here’s a look at each positional group and which team has the edge.
Most historians consider Brady the greatest player in NFL history.
Brady spent his first 20 seasons in New England where he won six Super Bowl championships, went to the big game nine times and won three NFL MVP awards.
Brady became an unrestricted free agent last March and signed with Tampa Bay, where he had a terrific season. Brady threw for 4,633 yards, 40 touchdowns and had a passer rating of 102.2. Brady has a remarkable 32-11 record in the postseason, including a 2-0 mark this year with Tampa Bay. To understand just how impressive that is, Joe Montana ranks second all-time among quarterbacks with 16 playoff wins.
Brady is making his 14th trip to a conference title game, which is twice as many as second place (Montana, seven). And Brady has produced a remarkable 13 fourth quarter game-winning drives in the postseason.
Now, Brady is trying to add to his remarkable legacy by winning a Super Bowl in his second city.
“It’s as big a challenge as you’ll face as a coordinator, as a defensive staff,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said of facing Brady. “Because he doesn’t miss anything. And that’s the thing. If you have an area of weakness, whether it was in New England or now at Tampa Bay, they will exploit it and continue to exploit it until you make a correction and force them out of it.
“So, it’s a huge challenge. It’s pretty clear and obvious he’s going to go down as one of the best of all time, and it’s, for me, I just love it because it’s a great challenge for our guys. That, ‘Hey, to go to the Super Bowl, we have to beat Tom Brady.’ ”
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is the overwhelming favorite to win a third MVP award.
Rodgers finished the year with 48 touchdowns, which broke his own team record (45 in 2011) and tied him for the fifth-most in NFL history. Rodgers also finished the year with a 121.5 quarterback rating, giving him the top two marks in league history. Rodgers holds the record with a 122.5 rating in 2011.
Rodgers completed 70.7% of his passes — his highest mark since becoming a starter in 2008. And his touchdown-to-interception ratio (9.6-to-1) was the second-best of his career (12.5-to-1 in 2018).
Rodgers led Green Bay to a win in Super Bowl XLV, but hasn’t returned. If he’s to lead the Packers back this year, he’ll have to play better than he has in his past trips to conference title games.
“I’m always just trying to stay present, especially this year as much as anything, and enjoy the moments,” Rodgers said. “I hope there’s more opportunities, but I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t. That stuff is out of my control.
“My future is a beautiful mystery I think. The present is such a gift to be able to stay in the moment and to have gratitude for being in this situation again, and being with the guys and having fans in our stadium and maybe snow in an NFC Championship Game. I’m going to enjoy these moments for sure, and just not worry about what happens down the line.”
Green Bay’s Aaron Jones finished fourth in the NFL in rushing yards with 1,104. He also averaged 5.5 yards per carry for the third time in his career.
Jones ripped off 99 yards in Green Bay’s divisional playoff win over the Rams last week, and No. 2 Jamaal Williams added 65 yards. Green Bay finished its playoff win with 188 rushing yards on 36 carries, a 5.2 average.
In Tampa Bay’s Week 6 win, though, the Packers managed just 94 rushing yards on 21 carries (4.4).
“They’ve got athletes up there who are pretty athletic, who can run, as well, who can get after the quarterback and stop the run,” Jones said of Tampa Bay’s defense. “So, I mean, they have good guys up there, but we’ve just got to come out, execute and be physical, as well.”
Tampa Bay’s Ronald Jones set career-highs in rushing yards (978), rushing touchdowns (seven) and yards per carry (5.1).
Jones (5-11, 225), a second-round draft pick in 2018, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds coming out of USC. He’s not fast, but he is extremely powerful.
Leonard Fournette, the fourth overall pick in the 2017 draft, had a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in Jacksonville, including a career-best 1,152 in 2019. The Jaguars couldn’t trade him last summer, though, so they released him instead and he signed with Tampa Bay.
Fournette had a quiet regular season (367 yards, three TDs), but leads Tampa Bay in rushing this postseason with 156 yards in two games. Together, the Jones-Fournette duo rivals almost any in football.
“When they’re just running like that, they’re two phenomenal backs,” Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans said. “They’re both really explosive power runners. When they’re going, we’re tough to beat, and that’s been shown all year.”
Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (ankle) and Chris Godwin (quad) are both expected to play, despite nagging injuries. Veteran Antonio Brown (knee) is out.
Evans has exceeded 1,000-yards receiving each of his first seven years in the league. He’s big (6-5, 231), strong and fast and finished fourth in the league with 13 receiving touchdowns.
Godwin led Tampa Bay with 1,333 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 2019 and was named to his first Pro Bowl. Injuries limited him to 12 games this season, but he still posted 840 yards and seven TDs.
“He’s a premier outside receiver and a premier slot (receiver),” Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said of Godwin. “I mean, there’s very, very few of those guys who can play all over the field and very few block like he blocks and sets up the play-action and sets the tempo. … He’s big in the screen game. Underneath stuff that he takes to the house. Very few guys are like him in this league.”
Brown had six straight seasons with at least 100 receptions between 2013-18 and was coming on strong late in the year. With Brown sidelined, Scotty Miller jumps up to No. 3 and rookie Tyler Johnson becomes No. 4.
Miller ran a blazing 4.36 40-yard dash coming out of Bowling Green in 2019. Miller had 501 receiving yards this season and is averaging 15.2 yards per catch on his 46 career receptions.
Johnson left Minnesota second all-time in receptions (213), and is the all-time leader in both receiving yards (3,305) and receiving touchdowns (33). He had a quiet rookie year (12-159-2), but had one of the biggest catches of the game in Tampa Bay’s win over New Orleans last week.
Veteran tight end Rob Gronkowski came out of retirement in April, got better as the year went on and finished with 45 catches for 623 yards and seven TDs. No. 2 tight end Cameron Brate (34-282-2) would start for many teams, as well.
“They’re good,” Packers safety Adrian Amos said of Tampa Bay’s tight ends. “Gronk is big, still can move, still get across the field and he’s a big body, box out, big route guy. So, it’s a lot of, you know, challenges he poses to the defense. And they’re tight ends, that’s more weapons to what they do. They have talent at every position.”
Green Bay’s Davante Adams had one of the greatest years ever by a Packer receiver. Adams broke the franchise record for receptions (115) and tied the team record for touchdown catches (18), despite missing 2 ½ games due to injury.
Adams had a relatively quiet day (6-61-0) against Tampa Bay’s Carlton Davis in Week 6.
The Packers got a big boost from No. 2 Allen Lazard last week, as he caught four passes for 96 yards and hauled in a game-clinching 58-yard touchdown.
“Last year was a big year just getting experience, really playing for the first time,” Lazard said. “It was a lot different than being on the practice squad and my role changed a lot throughout last year, as well, and this year, as well, too. I feel like the past two years, I’ve just been growing every single day, personally, on and off the field.”
Pro Football Focus recently ranked Green Bay’s offensive line the second-best in football and labeled Tampa Bay’s as No. 5.
Rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs is an athletic big man (6-5, 320) with terrific speed and length. PFF ranked Wirfs second among all right tackles in football.
Left guard Ali Marpet had a tremendous year and didn’t allow a sack in 849 snaps. After stints at center and right guard earlier in his career, Marpet has found a home at left guard.
Ryan Jensen (6-4, 319) is the NFL’s highest paid center (four years, $42 million). Jensen is extremely physical, but allowed four sacks and had four penalties this year.
Veteran left tackle Donovan Smith allowed six sacks and was penalized 11 times this season. And right guard Aaron Stinnie stepped in last week when preferred starter Alex Cappa went to the injured reserve list with an ankle injury.
“They have some guys that can make a lot of plays, who are very helpful to their offensive line,” Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith said of Tampa Bay’s offensive line. “They do a lot of great things. From the time we played them and what I see on film, they’re consistent and they’re playing at a high level and doing a lot of good things for their offensive front.”
Green Bay’s offensive line has been outstanding most of the season. The Packers did allow four sacks at Tampa Bay in Week 6, though.
“I think a lot of it just comes down to playing with good fundamentals,” Packers offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said. “I didn’t think we did a very good job in that game executing and then playing with fundamentals. So it’s just going to come down to us, you know, doing things the right way and playing fast and then obviously they bring a lot of different looks at you, a lot of different pressures. So, us communicating up front and being on the same page.”
Tampa Bay had the NFL’s top ranked rushing defense, allowing just 80.6 yards per game. The Buccaneers also rank No. 1 in yards allowed per carry at 3.6.
“With this defense, I don’t think nobody can run on us,” Tampa Bay outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul said earlier this year. “We take too much pride in it to let a team come up in here and just run on us and try to get it going.”
Ends Ndamukong Suh (six sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss) and William Gholston (three sacks, eight TFLs) are two veterans who are extremely tough to dislodge.
Nose tackle Vita Vea (6-4, 347) suffered a broken leg in Week 5, but was activated off injured reserve this week and will play.
“Vita Vea’s a very strong, obviously he’s big as well, he’s a big nose tackle as well,” Packers center Corey Linsley said. “He’s everything you want in a nose tackle. We’re preparing for everybody. But he does a lot of great things both in the pass and in the run game, he’s a stout defender, strong, big.”
Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark had a relatively quiet year, due in part to a groin injury and a heavy dose of double teams. Clark has gotten healthier as the year’s gone on, though, and had 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits in Green Bay’s divisional playoff win over the Rams.
“It felt good to have a game like that,” Clark said after his big day against the Rams. “I feel like it was long overdue that I have a game like that. Honestly this season for me, I really just had to just tune everything out and just focus on myself and focus on what’s going on around me, just play my game really, just play my game and live with whatever happens.
“I had a lot of goals that I had planned, I didn’t reach that many of those goals but playing in the Super Bowl and being in the NFC championship, that was the No. 1 goal that I wrote, so it is what it is. I’m doing everything I can to make it to the Super Bowl and win it.”
Packers defensive end Kingsley Keke is out with a concussion.
Tampa Bay has one of the best quartets in football.
Inside linebackers Devin White (140 tackles, nine sacks, 18 TFLs) and Lavonte David (117 tackles, 14 TFLs) both fly to the football.
White, the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft, ran the 40-yard dash in a blazing 4.42 seconds coming out of LSU. David, a second-round pick in 2012, has more than 1,100 tackles, 24 forced fumbles, 12 interceptions and 24.0 sacks in his terrific career.
“I think you could argue that’s the best tandem in the National Football League,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of White and David. “It’s tough to beat those two guys. Those guys are as good as it gets. It’s going to be a great challenge and one that we’re going to give our best in order to come out on top the way we’d like to.”
Jason Pierre-Paul (9.5 sacks, 11.5 TFLs) and Shaq Barrett (eight sacks, 12.5 TFLs) form one of the top outside linebacking duos, as well.
“Those guys are great players, for sure,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of Tampa Bay’s linebackers. “I think the strength of their defense is they play so well together. Their front is stout. They do a good job controlling the line of scrimmage. They’ve been good against the run the entire season. A lot of that is due to how athletic, and the sideline-to-sideline of, those linebackers are.”
Green Bay outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith tied for fourth in the league with 12.5 sacks, which was one sack behind his career-high of 13.5 set in 2019. Smith also set career-highs in forced fumbles (four) and fumble recoveries (2.0).
“Z’s always worked hard,” Packers outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said. “He knows what the big picture is and that’s the Super Bowl and getting there.”
PFF named Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander its most valuable cornerback after he had the top coverage grade in his position group. Alexander allowed just 21.5 receiving yards per game, second in the league to the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey.
“One of the things Jaire did was they took the game serious and whenever we did match him up early in the year,” Packers defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. “He went out and said hey, it doesn’t matter who you put me on, I want to go out there and challenge him. I love his competitiveness, he did a great job of competing the whole year.”
Adrian Amos was also named PFF’s most valuable safety and led his positional group in coverage grade. Amos tied for ninth in the league in passing stops (12) and second in forced incompletions (10).
In Green Bay’s win over the Rams last week, it held Los Angeles to 148 net passing yards.
The Buccaneers ranked 21st in passing yards allowed per game (246.6) and 12th in opposing quarterbacks rating (91.3).
Tampa Bay left cornerback Carlton Davis is a rising star. Davis had an NFL-best 18 passes defensed this year, had four interceptions and kept Green Bay’s Davante Adams (6-61-0) in check in Week 6.
Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting starts on the other side. Bunting has long arms (31¾”), ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds coming out of Central Michigan and has a knack for winning 50-50 balls.
Rookie strong safety Antoine Winfield, a second-round draft pick in April, had a huge first season. Winfield had 94 tackles, three sacks, six passes defensed and was in contention for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Winfield is questionable, though, with an ankle injury.
Free safety Jordan Whitehead is a hard hitter who had 9.5 tackles for loss this year, four passes defensed and two interceptions.
“Confidence with the back end of our defense — that comes with practice and preparation,” Winfield said. “As long as we prepare well, we can have that confidence going into the game.”
Green Bay’s special teams finished 29th overall in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings, which are widely considered the gold standard for judging these units. Tampa Bay’s finished 22nd.
Buccaneers veteran kicker Ryan Succop made 28 of 31 field goals this year (90.3%). Punter Bradley Pinion had a solid net average of 40.9 and a 45.2 gross.
The return games have been pedestrian, while the coverage units have been dreadful. Last week, New Orleans’ Deonte Harris had a 54-yard punt return, as well as a 67-yarder that was called back by penalty.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby is expected to play despite a shoulder injury.
Green Bay also signed veteran Tramon Williams after he was released by Baltimore. Williams, who played in Green Bay for 11 of his 15 seasons, could be asked to return punts Sunday.
“Obviously he’s always an option for us, and we’ll have those conversations, depending on his status and things,” Packers special teams coach Shawn Mennenga said of Williams. “That’ll be determined. He’s definitely an option and he’s been catching punts. I talked to him about that and he caught some after practice. So that’s always a good option for us. He’s always been reliable and sure-handed. He’s made plays with the ball in his hands so he’s always an option for us.”
Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur is a remarkable 28-7 overall (.800). LaFleur is 26-6 in the regular season and 2-1 in the playoffs.
LaFleur has led the Packers to consecutive 13-3 regular seasons and back-to-back NFC North titles. Now, after guiding the Packers to the NFC Championship Game a year ago, he’s hoping to get his team to the Super Bowl.
“I just think we’re a resilient group, and like I said, what’s happened in the past at this point, it really doesn’t matter,” LaFleur said this week. “It’s about what we do moving forward, and we have to make sure we learn from our past mistakes and try to apply that, but again, you still have to go out there and compete, and you have to compete at a high level when the stakes are pretty damn high, and you have to go earn it. We know it’s going to be a great challenge.”
Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians is a two-time NFL Coach of the Year.
Arians went 9-3 as the interim head coach in Indianapolis in 2012, then went 49-30-1 from 2013-17 in Arizona. Arians led the Cardinals to the playoffs twice, including the 2015 NFC Championship Game.
Arians retired after the 2017 season, sat out a year, then returned to coaching in 2019 when he took the Tampa Bay job. In two seasons with the Buccaneers, Arians is 18-14 in the regular season and 2-0 in the postseason.
“He’s going to coach you hard, but he’s also going to love you hard,” Tampa Bay center Ryan Jensen said of Arians. “The good butt-rip is sometimes needed, but he’s going to love you up and make sure you go into the game confident.”
Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles is one of the most aggressive defensive coordinators in football, with a blitz ratio above 40% most seasons. In the Buccaneers’ win over Green Bay in Week 6, Bowles blitzed 40.5% of the time overall and 56.3% on third downs.
“Coach Bowles is an outstanding coach,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He really is. I think his schemes for years have been cutting edge and he presents a lot of challenges for the offense. So, it’s been a good week of study.”
Reischel’s Prediction: Buccaneers 30, Packers 27 (O.T.)
Season Record: 15-2
Record vs. the point spread: 11-5-1