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Legendary quarterbacks meet, and only one gets to advance. History says pick Tom Brady over Aaron Rodgers in a big game, although this chilled atmosphere is the first time Rodgers gets an NFC title game in Green Bay. Alas, just 9,000 fortunate, bundled-up fans get to sit on the cold bleachers at Lambeau to see it live. One team’s defense seems more capable of closing things down when it counts. That team is the Bucs.
Buccaneers 31, Packers 27
Packers offensive line vs. Buccaneers defensive line
No area was more of a mismatch in the regular-season meeting than this one. The Bucs sacked Aaron Rodgers five times and stuffed the Packers’ rushing attack. Since that game, All-Pro Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari went down with a torn ACL, a huge loss. Still, the Packers did a great job last week vs. the Rams, as Rodgers was hit only one time in 36 drop-backs. Jason Pierre-Paul (9.5 sacks) and Ndamukong Suh (six) are veteran menaces, and there is tons of pressure applied by Shaquil Barrett (eight sacks) from the edge and inside linebacker Devin White (nine) on blitzes. Without Bakhtiari, the Packers must lean on left guard Elgton Jenkins, who was selected to the Pro Bowl and fortifies the inside, along with center Corey Linsley.
The one and only: Jason Pierre-Paul is amazing. That may sound overwrought, but it is true. At 32 years old, his body once ravaged by some serious injuries and surgeries, the uber-athletic defensive end is still doing his thing. He had 9.5 sacks this season for the Buccaneers, and he knows a thing or two about harassing and sacking Aaron Rodgers (see 2011 playoffs in Green Bay for details). The player everyone calls JPP spent eight years with the Giants. He was dominant in 2011 (career-high 16.5 sacks). He blew off most of his right hand in 2015 in a horrific fireworks accident. In 2019, he suffered a fractured neck in a car accident. The guy consistently defies the odds and he is one game away from his second Super Bowl.
Getting a grip: Cold or frozen hands make securing the football a difficult assignment. The temperature at kickoff is expected to be in the mid-20s, and there is a 40 percent chance of snow as the afternoon advances. Swiping the ball from these savvy quarterbacks is no easy feat, but deflected passes are another story. The Packers were the best team in the league in limiting turnovers, with just 11 in the regular season. The Bucs on defense are quality ball-hawks, with 25 takeaways (tied for fifth in the NFL). Nine of their players have at least one interception, and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting had two off Drew Brees last week.
Walk on the wild side: The Bucs with a victory will become the first team to ever play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium — and the fifth team to play a Super Bowl in its home state. They will have earned it, with postseason road victories at Washington and New Orleans. The Bucs are the first wild-card team to make it to the NFC title game since the 49ers in 2013. To soar into the playoffs, the Buccaneers rode Tom Brady’s right arm. In their current six-game winning streak, Brady has 16 touchdown passes and one interception, for a quarterback rating of 117.2.
Get the points: This is the first time in the Super Bowl era the four remaining playoff teams average at least 29 points a game. This fits the NFC game, as Bucs coach Bruce Arians and Packers coach Matt LaFleur made their way in the league via their offensive systems. Arians, 68, guided the Bucs to their first playoff berth in 13 years. He got to the NFC title game in 2015 with the Cardinals and is looking for his first Super Bowl as a head coach. He will have to figure out how to outscore LaFleur, one of the league’s gifted play-callers.