The NFC Championship Game sees the Green Bay Packers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a meeting between two of the game's greatest. Ben Steele expects fireworks...
"Rodgers, the presumptive regular season MVP, was the only man to throw more TDs than Brady this term (48) as he put up career highs in both touchdown passes and completion percentage and almost broke his own NFL record for quarterback rating."
Shootout in Rodgers vs Brady Part 4
Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have arguably been the best two quarterbacks in the NFL over the last decade but having played in differing conferences for their entire careers, have only played against each other three times coming in to Sunday night's NFC Championship Game. Brady's offseason move from the AFC's New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers means that for the second time this season the pair go head to head.
The 43-year-old spent 2020 showing that he's still an elite level player, throwing 40 touchdowns on his way to his best passing season since 2007 as he spearheaded an attack that is stacked with offensive weapons. Buccs Head Coach Bruce Arians said in an interview this week that he occasionally lets Brady lead coaching sessions with the offence allowing him to "just sit back and listen" but the two time NFL Coach of the Year winner has certainly built an impressive group around his quarterback. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski all caught at least seven touchdown passes, while Antonio Brown picked up four more despite only joining the team half way through the season as Tampa improved from 7-9 last year to 11-5.
In fact, the only consistent problem Tampa Bay seemed to have was with their division rival, the New Orleans Saints, but last week they crossed that bridge too. Brady threw two touchdowns and ran for another on the way to a 30-20 win at the Louisana Superdome. Drew Brees of the Saints is probably the third man in the debate for best QB of the 2010s and having beaten him Brady will need to be at his best again if he is to become the first QB to win three road playoff games since Rodgers did it in 2010.
Rodgers, the presumptive regular season MVP, was the only man to throw more TDs than Brady this term (48) as he put up career highs in both touchdown passes, completion percentage and almost broke his own NFL record for quarterback rating. Despite a reputation as somewhat of a gambler with the ball, Rodgers only turned the ball over seven times this year (five interceptions & two fumbles) and connected with wide receiver Davante Adams for an NFL best 18 touchdown catches. Adams was the star but, like Brady, Rodgers has a number of options available to him and will lean on them all throughout Sunday's game.
With both men playing at the top level we can expect a high scoring game and I'm backing Brady and Rodgers to combine for 550+ Passing yards and 5+ passing touchdowns @ 12/5.
Explosive Lazard & MVS a threat to Tampa
While Adams and Rodgers have been a prolific pair, the secondary receivers in Green Bay have more than played their part. Tight End Robert Tonyan averaged a touchdown every 4.7 catches on his way to 11 scores, and the dynamic duo of Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling both possess the speed to score from just about anywhere on the field.
Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur seemingly has a deep pass to either Lazard or Valdes-Scantling built in to his gameplan two or three times a game as they both aim to take the top off the defence and create space for Adams and Tonyan in the receiving game. The threat of running back Aaron Jones and rookie A.J. Dillon creates a play-action problem that both Lazard and MVS have benefitted from all season. Valdes-Scantling is the best deep threat in the NFL averaging an NFL best 20.7 yards per catch while Lazard scored the game clinching 58 yard touchdown in last week's win over the Los Angeles Rams.
The only concern with MVS is that he has had issues with drops, but in a game when Tampa's defence will look to replicate the regular season game between the two teams and neutralise Adams he will almost certainly get his chances. Fortunately for Green Bay, Adams was matched up against the best corner in the league last week, in the form of Jalen Ramsey, so scheming against defences who focus on Adams is now an almost weekly occurrence. Last week Lazard was excellent, racking up nearly 100 yards and scoring that touchdown as he established himself as the most important receiver after his highly touted teammate.
With Rodgers looking to attack the Buccs secondary look for both Lazard and Valdes-Scantling to outperform their yardage lines as part of an aerial focused attack.
Running can be the difference for Tampa again
All the way back in Week Six the Buccs and Packers played in Tampa in a game that was touted as a potential NFC Championship Game, a prediction that has now come to fruition. The regular season game ended in a 38-10 victory for Tampa and running back Ronald Jones continued his emergence as the leader in the backfield. With Leonard Fournette missing the game the second year rusher picked up 121 total yards and scored two touchdowns.
Heading in to Sunday's game the roles have reversed, Jones is battling injury and missed the first game of the playoffs before returning for a 12 carry, 62 yard performance against New Orleans last week. Fournette has been the feature back in Jones' absence and with the younger man reportedly struggling in practice again this week he looks set to lead the line again against a poor Green Bay run defence.
Fournette has stepped up in the playoffs, improving his yards per carry from 3.8 to 4.3 while also offering a receiving threat, and the former top 5 draft pick will know the Packers struggled against the run despite winning last week. Rams rusher Cam Akers scored a touchdown, had 90 rushing yards on 18 carries and was the standout performer against the NFC's top seed, Brady and Arians will have studied that and will no doubt look to feature the running game with regularity.
It is tough to bet against Brady in the playoffs and if Fournette can find the endzone for the third game in a row we could be looking at another upset win. Tampa have the added incentive of knowing a win would make them the first team ever to play a Super Bowl in their own stadium, and if there is one thing Tom Brady loves, its setting records. We could be in for a classic.
Ben Steele NFL P/L:
Staked: 70 points
Returned: 80.5 points
P/L: +10.5 points