NFC Championship: Bucs Are Better, But Still Shouldn't Catch Surging Packers

Cameron Smith

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At long last, the Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers playoff matchup that fans thirsted for in the Super Bowl has arrived, a round early. Brady and the Bucs enter off convincing wins against Washington and the Saints, to whom they lost their previous two regular season games. The Packers ran roughshod over a dynamic Rams defense that many prediction would be the lone unit capable of stuffing Green Bay's offense.

It didn't, and the Packers cruised. Can they do the same against a game Tampa squad. Will they? We're about to find out.

Packers passing attack vs. Buccaneers passing defense:  One of the most difficult parts of assessing this Buccaneers team is trying to identify how much of their success is down to recent unit improvements and how much is due to weak opposing performances. Take Tampa's passing defense, for example. The Bucs passing defense ranked 11th in Defensive Real QBR but just 18th in Defensive Passer Rating at the end of the regular season. And yet the unit held down a surprisingly on fire Taylor Heinicke in the Wild Card round, then capitalized on each and every mistake Drew Brees made for the Saints as Tampa rallied for a Divisional victory.

Granted, those results can provide more perspective, but not necessary proof of who (or what) the Bucs' secondary is. Against the Saints, they had ample preparation from two prior matches against them. No matter how you slice it, Aaron Rodgers' dominant season should be the single most determining factor in  Sunday's face off. 

Buccaneers passing attack vs. Packers passing defense: A bit like the Bucs, the Packers passing defense is just respectable, far from world stoppers. Still, they gave fits to Jared Goff and the Rams offense, and have the ability to poach even the slightest mistake. The odds are that won't come from Brady, who has scaled back Tampa's downfield attack and added more high percentage, quick-release throws that maximize the opportunity for players to make a move in upper level competition.

Yet, there remains the chance that Brady trusts his receivers and finds the gaps he needs to make the Bucs offense hum as it has the past two weeks. After all, he's playing with a top-10 Real QBR and Offensive Passer Rating unit himself. We'd tend to trust the stats and Green Bay's ability to limit the Bucs' big play ability, but anything is possible with a Super Bowl bid on the line.

Packers rushing attack vs. Buccaneers rushing defense: Note: This was not the same Green Bay rushing offense that dominated in 2019. Still, the likes of A.J. Dillon have hit the ground more powerfully at just the right time, adding another valuable dimension to the Packers' offense.

That might seem encouraging, but Tampa's run defense is the league's best, putting the responsibility on moving the ball firmly back on Rodgers' shoulders. Tampa will in turn do its best to contain whichever Packers back gets the ball and force Green Bay back to the air on early downs.

Buccaneers rushing attack vs. Patriots rushing defense: The Bucs featured a top-10 rushing offense in the regular season, but they've further developed their power game in the postseason, alternating between Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette as versatile battering rams. Fournette had 93 yards and a touchdowns against Washington, then when Jones returned against the Saints the duo compiled 125 yards of total rushing offense. There's little question they'll need another performance like that against Green Bay's rushing defense, which stands as the Achilles heel of the NFC's best team.

The Packers yielded 90 yards to Cam Akers in their easy win against the Rams, so even rushing success may not pave the way for points on the scoreboard, but it stands as a key to the Bucs maintaining offensive balance and the kind of balanced threat that could undo Green Bay's defensive stability that has been the key to its success.

Index watching: The Packers dominate in the three key indeces, thanks to Aaron Rodgers' dominance. Green Bay holds a narrow, one-slot edge in Intelligence Index, a four-spot advantage in Real QBR Differential and larger eight-slot edge in Passer Rating Differential. Perhaps more pertinent is that Green Bay is literally top of the heap in two of the three indeces. When combined with an edge in the Intelligence Index, it's almost unprecedented for that team to lose.

Yes, the Bucs do hold an advantage in Rusher Rating Differential by the largest spread of all (15 spots!), but that shouldn't be enough to counter the sizable edge in Green Bay's favor across the rest of the board.

While it's difficult to feel how this will all play out, thanks in large part to the rise of Tampa Bay's defense and rushing attack, the safer money is still on Aaron Rodgers and the Packers prevailing and finally heading back to the Super Bowl.