Packers vs. Buccaneers: 5 things to watch and a prediction

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Zach Kruse
·6 min read
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The Green Bay Packers (14-3) will play for the opportunity to go to Super Bowl LV when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) at Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

The top-seeded Packers beat the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Rams to get here, while the fifth-seeded Buccaneers went through the fourth-seeded Washington Football Team and second-seeded New Orleans Saints to make the title game.

The winner Sunday will play the winner between the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills on the AFC side in Super Bowl LV.

Here are five things to watch and a prediction for Sunday’s showdown:

Fast start

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams (17) against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, December 27, 2020, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

In this game last year, the Packers fell behind 27-0 in the first half against the San Francisco 49ers and never recovered. Three years earlier in the same game, they fell behind 24-0 in the first half against the Atlanta Falcons and never recovered. The Packers must reverse the title game trend on the Buccaneers. This showdown is at the friendly confines of Lambeau Field, with fans in the stands and set outdoors in freezing temperatures against a Florida foe that hasn't played a cold-weather game all season. And Matt LaFleur's offense has scored more points on opening drives than any other team in football. The Packers did create an early 10-0 lead on the Buccaneers in the first meeting, but it melted away thanks to two Aaron Rodgers turnovers, a rarity unlikely to happen again. Keep in mind, during each of their last two home games (Titans, Rams), the Packers held first-half leads of two scores or more. Feeding off the energy and any advantages created by the setting at Lambeau Field could give the Packers an important early edge.

QBs under pressure

(AP Photo/Jason Behnken)

Big games like this one are usually decided by quarterback play. And there's no better way to disrupt a quarterback – whether he's a future Hall of Famer or a rookie undrafted free agent – than applying consistent, disruptive pressure. Keep Aaron Rodgers protected, and the Packers will like their chances of advancing to the Super Bowl. No quarterback was better from a clean pocket this season. Fail to pressure and hit Tom Brady, and the Packers' Super Bowl aspirations will likely evaporate into the cold, dry air encasing Lambeau Field on Sunday night. Football can be such a simple game. Protect your quarterback when you have the ball, and disrupt the opponent's when you don't. The team capable of doing both the best will almost certainly be playing in Super Bowl LV.

Run it back against the middle linebackers

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Inside linebackers can be a difficult position to avoid when building a gameplan, but they can be attacked by the right concepts. Devin White and Lavonte David are All-Pro players who wrecked the first meeting for the Packers, but Matt LaFleur doesn't necessarily need to reinvent the wheel to beat them this time around. In October, the Packers tried to outflank the pair with perimeter runs, but White and David were too instinctive and too fast. Blockers couldn't beat them to spots, and the running backs – including Aaron Jones – weren't fast enough to beat them around the corner. This time around, the Packers should go right at them, using the same inside zone run looks that worked so well against the Rams, while mixing in motion and misdirection – both pre- and post-snap – to get the linebackers thinking a little more. Two-back sets with pre-snap motion really worked to create light boxes against the Rams. And the Packers can't be afraid to go after them in the passing game. Both White and David gave up a bunch of yards in coverage this year. The Packers offense must adjust to their playmaking speed, but they can't be afraid of them.

Turnovers

AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio

Any preliminary assessment of this game has to include turnovers. It's cliché, just like pressuring the quarterback, but it's also vitally important to deciding big games, especially when one team is so good at avoiding them and one team is so good at creating them. The Packers had an NFL-low 11 turnovers and were 11-0 without a turnover this season (but also 3-3 with one or more). The Buccaneers defense produced a takeaway in 16 of their 18 games and finished with 25 takeaways, the fifth-most in the NFL. The four takeaways last week in New Orleans – including three interceptions of Drew Brees – represent the primary reason why it's the Bucs and not the Saints coming to Lambeau Field on Sunday. Can Bruce Arians' team win in Green Bay without a takeaway or two? In the first meeting, Tampa Bay didn't have a turnover or a penalty and didn't give up a sack or quarterback hit. The Bucs producing another mistake-free game is probably unlikely.

Vertical passing game

AP Photo/Matt Ludtke

Both of these teams have passing games built around vertical concepts. The numbers tell the story: Tom Brady led the NFL in completions on passes over 20 yards, while Aaron Rodgers led the NFL in total passing yards on completions over 20 yards. Both teams are capable of creating the all-important explosive plays, the lifeblood of efficient, high-scoring offenses. The other half of the story: both defenses have been good at taking away big plays, increasing the importance of winning the explosive play battle on Sunday. The Packers offense generates most of their big plays using play-action, a tool they weren't able to utilize much in the first meeting. On defense, Green Bay's cornerbacks need to be strong misdirecting receivers at the line, and the safeties have to keep Brady from attacking behind the coverage.

Prediction: Packers 31, Buccaneers 27 (12-5)

The Packers' blueprint for beating the Bucs and getting to the Super Bowl isn't a complicated one, but it will be difficult to execute Sunday. Winning the line of scrimmage, protecting the football and limiting Tom Brady is no easy task, but the Packers may have to do all three to win. Matt LaFleur's bunch is capable, and they will be assisted by a red-hot offense that can adjust and win in multiple ways and an improving defense with disruptive pass-rushing options and talent coverage players in the secondary. Lambeau Field provides another built-in competitive advantage. The guess here is that Aaron Rodgers, sensing the opportunity for a legacy moment, plays the highly-efficient and clean game the Packers need, and the pass-rushers of Mike Pettine's defense do just enough to keep Brady from taking over. Don't be surprised if the Packers look good early, weather the storm mid-game and then take back control late. It's been the winning formula all season.