We made it, Packers fans. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will head to the Frozen Tundra on Sunday for the NFC Championship Game. I said last week had all the makings of an instant classic, but this one has even more storylines to make it an unforgettable game. Here are six things to look for on Championship Sunday:
1. Two Goats, Ya Herd?
And we now have a new entry for the worst section title of all time. Two goats does not a herd make, but two goats do make for a fantastic football matchup on Sunday.
It’s absolutely crazy to think that this will be Tom Brady’s 14th appearance in a Conference Championship Game. After 13 appearances in the AFC and nine victories, Brady is taking his talents to the NFC. For Aaron Rodgers, this marks his 5th appearance in the NFC Championship, and of course his first at Lambeau Field. After his first win during the 2010 season on the way to Super Bowl XLV against the Bears, Rodgers has since lost his other three appearances on the road (Seattle, Atlanta, and San Francisco).
We might be seeing a battle between two three-time MVPs on Sunday, as Brady already has three titles and Rodgers has two, but likely wins his third this year. In his last six games, Brady has thrown for 1,913 yards, 16 touchdowns, and only one interception. In Rodgers’ last six games, he’s thrown for 1,495 yards, 17 touchdowns, and also only one pick.
Interestingly, this is only the second time in Brady’s illustrious career that he’s thrown 40-plus touchdowns, and he’s doing it with a new team. He finished this season with 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, second only to his 2007 season when he threw 50 touchdowns.
As we know, Rodgers set a career-high and franchise record throwing 48 touchdowns in the regular season with only five interceptions. His 121.5 quarterback rating is second in NFL history behind only his own 2011 rating of 122.5.
All of this to say “get your popcorn ready.” This will be only the fourth time we’ve ever seen these two quarterbacks line up across from one another, with Brady currently holding the edge 2-1. It’s a small sample size, but of note, the home quarterback has always won.
2. The Regular Season is History
My dad was a history major in college, so I hope he doesn’t read this part where I say “history doesn’t matter” but when we’re talking about an NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field, it’s hard to factor in a Week 6 loss in Tampa. These two teams have evolved dramatically since that initial matchup, and we’ve certainly seen the Buccaneers bounce back from their 38-3 loss at home to the Saints in Week 9.
In fact, it’s hard to not look at that Week 6 game as an anomaly for the Packers. The 38-10 score was the only time this season the Packers were held under 22 points. Green Bay’s offense is ranked number one in the NFL for a reason in points for, averaging 31.8 yards per game, and against the league’s number one defense last Saturday, we still saw the Packers put up 32 points.
In Week 6, Rodgers was sacked four times and threw two interceptions, including only the third pick-six of his career. On the season, Rodgers threw only five total interceptions and was sacked only 20 times, the lowest total in his career as a starter. What’s more, the Packers were penalized six times for 76 yards, and the Bucs didn’t have one penalty on the day.
While it’s easy to look at the 2019 season as a recent, negative example of Green Bay losing in the regular season and in the postseason to the same opponent, we’ve learned in 2020 that this is an entirely different Packers team. Since the blowout loss to the Bucs, Green Bay has only lost twice more (Vikings and Colts) and those losses were by six and three points in close, hard-fought games.
Finally, perhaps the biggest difference is that this matchup will be at Lambeau Field, with fans, in the snow (but more on that in No. 4).
3. Something’s Gotta Give
Both teams remaining in the NFC are on hot streaks, with the Buccaneers on a six-game winning streak and the Packers on a seven-game winning streak. (Over in the AFC, the Bills are on an eight-game winning streak, and the Chiefs would likely be on a 12-game streak had Mahomes not rested in Week 17.)
While we’ll spend much of the week talking about two high-powered offenses led by two of the best to ever play football, with Brady’s Bucs also averaging over 30 points per game, we also need to look at how much the Packers defense has improved. Through the last six games, Green Bay’s defense has allowed an average of only 17.3 points to opposing teams. Tampa is allowing 19.7 points per game through its most recent six matchups.
This is a Buccaneers defense that aggressively gets after the football. For context, the Packers forced 18 turnovers this season. The Buccaneers have forced 30 turnovers this season, with four coming last week against the Saints. In the Bucs’ five losses this season, Tampa turned the ball over 11 times. In Green Bay’s three losses, the Packers turned the ball over seven times.
It’s simple, but protecting the football is likely the biggest key to success on Sunday. The Packers are 11-0 this season when they don’t turn the ball over.
4. The Frozen Tundra Effect
A major goal of this season for the Packers was to finally host an NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field, and on Sunday this team will get its wish. Not since 2007 has Green Bay hosted a Championship, and that was before Rodgers became the starter.
Rodgers has a home playoff record of 5-2, and he averages 28.3 points per game in the playoffs. While Brady rarely has had to travel in the playoffs, he’s 6-4 in road games, with two of those victories coming this season against Washington and New Orleans. He also averages 27.14 points per playoff game.
What’s more, no team has won three straight road games to get to the Super Bowl since the Packers did it as the sixth seed in 2010. Raymond James Stadium is also the site of Super Bowl LV, and so far no team has ever made the Super Bowl the year its stadium hosted.
There will once again be roughly 9,000 fans in the stands on Sunday, and players made sure to talk about how significant that noise was last Saturday against the Rams. Right now, there’s also a 50% chance of snow in the forecast and temperature at kickoff should be below 30 degrees. While Brady has plenty of experience playing in the cold given his time with New England, there will also be just as many Bucs players who aren’t used to the cold and snow. Davante Adams discussed at length this season how different it is to be comfortable and familiar practicing in the cold Green Bay weather.
5. Rest in Peace, Ted Thompson
Heartbreaking news broke this week that former Packers General Manager Ted Thompson passed away at age 68. Thompson, of course, was an integral part of not only drafting and signing much of the talent on the Super Bowl XLV roster, but also drafting so many of the players poised for another Super Bowl berth 10 years later.
Notable names include Thompson’s first ever draft pick, Aaron Rodgers, All-Pro left tackle and center David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley, Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones, and so many more. Additionally, new practice squad acquisition and familiar face Tramon Williams is also arguably one of the best undrafted free agents to ever sign with the Packers, thanks in large part to Thompson’s keen eye for finding talent.
Current General Manager Brian Gutekunst has said many times how much Thompson impacted his own career and the way he makes decisions for the Packers franchise, calling Thompson “one of the best evaluators that has ever done this,” shortly after his hire in 2018. If this Packers team goes all the way this year, it will be largely in part due to the foundation Thompson helped to lay in Green Bay.
6. Go Pack Go
I just want to use this last section to talk about how special this season has been. We went from not knowing if we’d be able to have an NFL season to now only having three games left until the 2020 season is in the rearview mirror. The Green Bay Packers are one of four teams left standing, and regardless of what happens Sunday, that’s special.
I can’t speak for any of you, but I appreciated this season so much, despite the uniqueness of it all. It’s easy to say that because this team is a game away from the Super Bowl, but I genuinely have not enjoyed a Packers team quite like this in a long time. Even last season getting to the NFC Championship Game, it felt more like a Cinderella story in Matt LaFleur’s first year as head coach. This feels, different.
The camaraderie and close-knit nature of this group of men has been such a joy to watch each week. This season has felt special from the beginning, even without fans in the stands. Of course, I can’t wait to be back in a packed stadium with 80,000 of my closest friends in Green and Gold, but I’ve also enjoyed being able to kick back with my dad over a few beers and remind myself how I fell in love with the game in the first place.
I absolutely refuse to bet against this Packers team, because I think it’s that special (especially at Lambeau Field), but if the season does come to an end on Sunday, I’m forever grateful for the memories this team has given us. We got to witness another MVP season from Rodgers and watch Adams have perhaps the greatest season by a wide receiver in Packers history (and there’s a lot of history).
But, you don’t read this each week because you want me to be sentimental. I can’t help it. I’m an eternal optimist. And even so, I still feel good about this matchup. This Packers team is ready. And you can expect more of this if we’re talking about the Packers in the Super Bowl in two weeks. As the late, great Kevin Greene would say: It. Is. Time.
Go Pack Go.
Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV, podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast and Pack’s What She Said, and hosts a weekly live show called Happy Hour through Game On Wisconsin. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieJLoney.