Welcome to Conference Championship Sunday! Our first matchup has kicked off and features two of the all-time greatest quarterbacks, with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers playing host to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There are, of course, other stars all over the field, from Davante Adams and Aaron Jones to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and from Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith to Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. There are even incredibly intriguing matchups along the offensive and defensive fronts, as this game also includes some of the best linemen in the league.
This should be a fascinating game, so let's break things down.
How to watch
When the Buccaneers have the ball
Let's clip a couple sections from last week's Rams-Packers preview, which are just as relevant here:
Green Bay checked in a fairly solid 18th in rush defense DVOA this season, but a more concerning 23rd in Adjusted Line Yards, indicating that the Packers more often than not lost the battle in the trenches...
In their three losses this season, the Packers surrendered 158, 173, and 140 rushing yards, to opponents who averaged 4.5, 5.1, and 3.8 yards per attempt. The Colts staged a second-half comeback by running their way into field goals and tightening up on defense. Tampa's early lead came via a pick-six and another interception returned to the 2-yard line, so it was only Minnesota that really came out and just ran the ball right down Green Bay's throat from the jump. But even the Vikings didn't take the lead for good until the third quarter, and didn't put things away until Dalvin Cook took a screen pass 50 yards to the house.
Can the Bucs jump out to an early lead again this time, if they simply run Leonard Fournette and/or Aaron Jones down the Packers' throats? The Rams tried to do it with Cam Akers, but they fell behind because their defense allowed two touchdowns and a field goal on Green Bay's first three drives of the game. They were able to keep Akers involved the rest of the way, but once you go down by two scores, your whole offensive rhythm is thrown out of whack.
The Bucs tried to run early and often against the Saints last week, and it didn't really work out for them. Only once they shifted to a more pass-centric attack did they start hanging crooked numbers on the scoreboard -- but even that required a great deal of help from the defense, setting them up with short fields. Tom Brady didn't exactly tear things up, throwing for only 199 yards on 33 attempts.
But the Green Bay pass defense is not nearly as solid as that of the Saints. The Packers have Jaire Alexander to potentially shadow Mike Evans and the combination of Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Rashan Gary, and Kenny Clark up front, but there are more places to take advantage of Green Bay's coverage than there are New Orleans'. If Alexander shadows Evans, that puts Kevin King on Antonio Brown on the opposite side, and Chandon Sullivan on Chris Godwin in the slot. Those seem like the most likely matchups. Godwin on Sullivan would be a strong advantage for the Buccaneers, as would Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate against any of the linebackers the Bucs can get them matched up on. (It's less of a clear advantage if the Packers use their safeties in coverage.)
Exploiting any of those advantages, though, requires winning the battle along the line. Tampa has one of the best pass-protecting offensive lines in the NFL this season, largely keeping the rush out of Brady's face and allowing him to throw from a clean pocket. If they give him time against this Packers secondary, he will find openings. But if the Smiths and/or Gary start forcing Brady off his spot, and he has to buy time or reset himself after maneuvering in the pocket, that's where the Packers might have the advantage. Tampa can keep the pass rush off balance with play-action passing, but the Packers would probably be just fine with the Bucs deciding to run rather than throw. They've rather get beat by Fournette and Jones than by Brady, one would think.
When the Packers have the ball
The Buccaneers finished this season, just like last season, with one of the NFL's best defenses. Tampa ranked sixth in yards allowed, eighth in points allowed, and fifth in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders' DVOA. But like last year, the Bucs' defensive success was built on their ability to stop the run: they've ranked first in run defense DVOA in each of the past two seasons. For that reason, it seems unlikely that this will be a game controlled by Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, and A.J. Dillon -- even if Alvin Kamara did get loose a few times on the ground last week.
Because of that focus on the run, though, the Bucs can be beaten through the air. In fact, they seemingly encourage opposing offenses to throw, based on their alignment. According to Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, the Buccaneers used at least seven defenders in the box on 59 percent of their defensive snaps, about 5 percent more often than the average team in the league (54.2 percent). The same is true of their usage of eight-man boxes: Tampa aligned that way 31.6 percent of the time, compared with a league average of 25.5 percent.
The more defenders in the box, the more advantageous it is for the opponent to pass instead of run. That held true against the Bucs, with opponents posting their best EPA per play rates against Tampa's eight-man boxes, per Tru Media.
Well, do the Bucs really want to play a defense that encourages the Packers to put the ball in the hands of Aaron Rodgers, rather than those of Jones, Williams, and Dillon? I sure wouldn't. But that's been Tampa's philosophy for the better part of the last two years. They've been able to find success with it because they do such a good job of shutting down opposing run games and getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Bucs got pressure on the QB on 36.3 percent of dropbacks this season, a rate that far exceeded the league average of 30.7 percent.
Can they keep the pressure up against the Packers? Typically, that's easier said than done. Rodgers was the league's second least-pressured quarterback this season, with rushers getting into his face only 23.8 percent of the time. And it's not like he got rid of the ball too quickly for the rush to ever get there. His 2.78-second average time to throw, per PFF, was right around the 2.76-second league average. He just got incredible pass protection. Of course, the best pass-protector on the team was left tackle David Bakhtiari, who is now out for the season after tearing his ACL. The Packers largely held up just fine without him last week, but A. the strength of the Rams' pass rush is on the interior, not the edge; and B. Aaron Donald was injured and clearly not himself. This week may pose a bigger challenge for the guys up front, with Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, and more flying off the edge.
The Packers should also have some considerable matchup advantages in the passing game. Davante Adams is just about uncoverable, as he showed last week against Jalen Ramsey. The Bucs may or may not use Carlton Davis to shadow him, but it seems unlikely to matter. Adams will beat whoever Tampa puts in front of him. But Green Bay should also have advantages with Robert Tonyan over the middle (the Bucs ranked 25th in DVOA against throws to tight ends), as well as Jones and Williams out of the backfield (only two teams allowed more passes to running backs). With so many options for Rodgers, the Packers should be able to move the ball.
Naturally, the response to this is that every word of this was also true when the Packers and Bucs played earlier this season, and the Bucs steamrolled their way to a 38-10 win. A repeat seems somewhat unlikely, though. The Packers actually led that game 10-0 and seemed to be on a bit of a roll, only for Rodgers to uncharacteristically get picked-sixed by Sean Murphy-Bunting and then nearly pick-sixed by Jamel Dean on the very next possession. He would go on to throw only three more interceptions all year. The safe bet is on him taking care of the ball and carving things up.
Prediction: Packers 27, Buccaneers 21