From one legendary NFC clash in the divisional round to another in the conference title game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used suffocating defense and an efficient outing by Tom Brady to do away with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, punching their ticket to a battle with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. This marks a rematch of the Week 6, when the Buccaneers broke out the whooping stick against the Packers, walking them down in a 38-10 blowout that handed Rodgers his first loss of the season and sent notice that Brady wasn't in Tampa for show.
Despite some noticeable bumps in the road, including having been swept by the aforementioned Saints en route to finishing second in the NFC South, the Buccaneers went on to finish with an 11-5 record and have now exacted their vengeance against their rivals from Louisiana. With that NFC South redemption comes another and more daunting challenge in the Packers in the NFC title game, because unlike a struggling Brees -- who is likely to retire -- Rodgers is the frontrunner for official league MVP honors and has already taken home honors as PFWA NFL MVP.
Also, Green Bay entered the playoffs with the best record in the conference, the Bucs being one of only three losses on the year.
The Packers got smacked by Brady's bunch at Raymond James Stadium, but now the bout is set for frosty Lambeau Field, where Rodgers is king and wants some payback after what took place earlier this season. It's expected to be a matchup for the ages, but the two teams aren't necessarily the same version of themselves as the ones who took the field on Oct. 18, and that especially applies to the group from Central Florida.
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The journey to cohesiveness
It was an interesting offseason for both clubs, to say the very least.
Rodgers found himself stunned and working through feelings of anger after the Packers selected quarterback Jordan Love with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, a move that sparked controversy and a list of warnings from Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre -- believing the decision to be eerily similar to what eventually ended his era in Green Bay (Rodgers being Love in that scenario). And while Rodgers would never admit it publicly, the pick poured gasoline all over his drive to prove he was far from done as an elite NFL signal-caller, and he lead the Packers to a 4-0 start that saw their offense average a whopping 38 points per game heading into their bye week, with the Buccaneers on the menu for Week 6.
On the other side of the coin, Tampa Bay was attempting to actually usher in a new QB era after stealing away six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady away from the New England Patriots. From there came a massive overhaul on offense, one that included also trading for then-retired tight end Rob Gronkowski and signings like that of former fourth-overall pick Leonard Fournette, not to mention changes on the defensive side of the ball. So while the Packers found their groove quickly, the Bucs struggled to do so as they stumbled a bit to a 3-2 start -- before going to 4-2 after using the Packers as a trampoline to launch a three-game win streak.
Flash forward to mid-January and the Bucs are fielding a top-10 defense while Brady and his weapons are mostly (and finally) on the same page. To be clear, the Bucs will have their hands more than full with the likes of, but Brady's improved chemistry with his offense is what the Packers will face on Sunday: a high-powered team that can match serve with anything they can bring to the table, albeit now having to deal with the loss of a top offensive weapon.
The gain and loss of Antonio Brown
The addition of Brown has now turned to subtraction, thanks to a knee injury suffered in the NFC divisional round that's led to him being ruled out against the Packers.
Having missed the majority of the 2019 season as well as most of it's preseason work -- due to his infamous frostbitten feet -- and going on to miss offseason work and the first half of the season this time around, no one expected Brown to hit the ground running when he finally did get on the field for the Buccaneers in Week 9. But when he found his NFL mojo again, opposing teams realized quickly he was still a threat to not only impact a game, but potentially take it over altogether. Brown was integral in helping the Bucs to a four-game win streak to finish out the regular season, with the team securing a playoff spot in the process. He delivered five touchdowns in the final six games and a 138-yard outing to down the Atlanta Falcons in what was one of the more harrowing comebacks in the NFL this season, his chemistry with Brady suddenly and consistently on full display as the club headed into the playoffs.
This was the Bucs at their best, and while they walked down the Packers without Brown in Week 6, it'll be all hands on deck to do it again -- at Lambeau Field in January, no less. Brady isn't lacking for weapons but Brown, like Brady, is no stranger to playing in icy temps (from his time spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers) and that was simply another advantage the veteran wideout has over his compatriots who aren't. Outside of that tidbit, the combination of Brown and Mike Evans was as dangerous a one-two punch as you'll find, particularly with the speed of Chris Godwin and the talented tight end unit -- led by Rob Gronkowski -- providing pressure release valves in the passing attack for Brady.
It's time to see who's truly the platinum standard in the NFC, and while this is the kind of game the Bucs signed Brown to be a part of, they're going to have to figure out how to sweep Rodgers without him.