Trailing by 18 points, the Packers went to the air more frequently than they probably anticipated early in the third quarter. But that aggressiveness paid off when tight end Robert Tonyan caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers at the end of an eight-play, 75-yard drive. The score cut the Tampa Bay lead to 28-17.
Rodgers was clearly looking to his more featured wide receivers early in the play but since they were either double covered or not open, he came back to the middle of the formation where Tonyan had found an unoccupied seam. With a sidearm motion, Rodgers zipped the ball for the touchdown that quickly got Green Bay back in the game. Rodgers was 5 of 6 passing in the possession.
Tampa Bay’s ascendant second-year linebacker Devin White was in the middle of a meaningful play for the second consecutive week when he recovered a fumble by Green Bay running back Aaron Jones at the start of the second half that led to another Buccaneers touchdown. Jones had caught a key third-down pass from Aaron Rodgers and was trying to pick up the first down when the football was dislodged on a tackle by Jordan Whitehead.
White recovered the ball and ran it to the Packers’ 8-yard line. On the Buccaneers’ next play, Tom Brady threw a touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Brate for a 28-10 Tampa Bay lead. It was Brady’s third touchdown pass of the game.
White missed the Buccaneers’ opening playoff victory over the Washington Football Team because he was on the Covid-19 reserve list, but he has been a dominant force since.
In Tampa Bay’s 30-20 upset victory over the New Orleans Saints last weekend, White recovered a pivotal fumble by Saints tight end Jared Cook that led to a game-tying touchdown in the third quarter. He also made 11 tackles and had a game-clinching fourth quarter interception. In the regular season, White led the Buccaneers in tackles with 140, including 97 solo tackles.
“Great players usually smell blood in the water,” Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said of White last week. “I think sitting at home for a week really inspired him to show what he was missing, so he wanted to come out and make a splash.”
After the Saints game, White said he liked “to put his stamp on a game.” He added: “I felt like I hadn’t made a big play. The game was still tight and I didn’t want it to be tight.”
Said Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians: “That’s just typical Devin — flying around and making tackles and making some of the most important plays of the game.”
Oh, that’s the way, uh-huh uh-huh
I like it!!!!
— Gisele Bündchen (@giseleofficial) January 24, 2021
On the final play from scrimmage in the first half, the Buccaneers continued to take advantage of their opponent’s mistakes — as they have throughout the postseason. This time Tampa Bay capitalized on a late Aaron Rodgers interception at midfield that gave Tom Brady a short field and under 30 seconds to score.
Brady threw a stunning, 39-yard touchdown strike to Bucs receiver Scotty Miller with one second left in the second quarter that put Tampa Bay ahead, 21-10. Tampa Bay came into Sunday’s game with 27 points scored following turnovers in its two previous road victories.
The sequence began when the Packers took over at their own 13-yard line with slightly more than two minutes remaining before intermission. On a third-and-9, the Buccaneers blitzed again, which left Allen Lazard open over the middle for a 23-yard reception. But on the next play, the Buccaneers Jason Pierre-Paul burst past the Packers left tackle Billy Turner and pounded Aaron Rodgers to the ground for his second sack of the game.
After a timeout, Tampa Bay defensive back Sean Murphy-Bunting got away with grabbing Lazard’s jersey as they jostled downfield. Then Murphy-Bunting cut in front of Lazard to intercept a Rodgers pass with less than 30 seconds remaining before intermission.
The Buccaneers gained only six yards on three ensuing plays but went for it on fourth down at the Packers’ 45-yard line with 13 seconds left in the half. A Brady pass to Leonard Fournette picked up the first down and on the next play, which began with eight seconds on the clock, Brady threw in the left corner of the end zone to Miller, who ran away from Green Bay cornerback Kevin King.
Buccaneers 14, Packers 10
A 24-yard field goal by Green Bay’s Mason Crosby trimmed the Buccaneers’ lead to 14-10 but the Packers had to be frustrated when they couldn’t score a touchdown despite having first-and-goal at the Tampa Bay 6-yard line. Plus, Aaron Rodgers had three good opportunities to connect with his top target, Davante Adams.
At the start of the Packers’ possession, the Buccaneers continued to hassle Aaron Rodgers in the pocket by blitzing a fifth pass rusher, although that put in motion a cat-and-mouse game, with Rodgers trying to find his hot receiver before the pass rush reached him. Sometimes that strategy did not work (Rodgers has been sacked twice and harried), but sometimes it did, like on the two receptions Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Davante Adams caught to extend the second-quarter drive.
More important, the Green Bay offensive line began to create running room for Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, who each had 12-yard dashes early in the drive.
Deep in the Buccaneers’ end of the field, Jones rushed on three consecutive plays to set up a first-and-goal for the Packers from the 6-yard line. On a quick throw to the left, Adams dropped a first-down pass in the end zone, although Rodgers’s throw was slightly behind him. On a second-down rollout, Rodgers went for Adams again but the pass was batted down. A third try to Adams was complete but beyond the end line of the end zone, setting up Crosby’s field goal with five minutes remaining in the half at the end of a 15-play possession.
Buccaneers 14, Packers 7
After a tepid end to the first quarter, both teams unleashed some high-powered offenses and traded touchdowns early in the second quarter. That kept Tampa Bay ahead, 14-7.
Green Bay answered the Buccaneers’ opening-drive touchdown with a spectacular, 50-yard sideline pass from Aaron Rodgers to wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling that tied the game, 7-7, on the second play of the second quarter.
The drive began after Green Bay stopped the Buccaneers on their second drive — a sack of Tom Brady by Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark was key. When the Packers’ offense took the field again, Tampa Bay’s Jason Pierre-Paul sacked Aaron Rodgers to push Green Bay deep into its own territory. But the Packers answered with a daring decision: They put Rodgers on the move as he rolled out in his own end zone, pausing just before he ran out of bounds to fire a 23-yard pass to wide receiver Allen Lazard.
Davante Adams then caught a 15-yard pass up the left sideline to advance the Packers to midfield as the first quarter ended.
After a short run by Aaron Jones softened the Buccaneers’ defense, Rodgers dropped back and looked for Valdes-Scantling all the way down the field, lofting the ball just over Tampa Bay cornerback Carlton Davis. Valdes-Scantling stumbled briefly but regained his balance to dash into the end zone.
But the Tampa Bay offense responded with a touchdown in less than two minutes. The Packers forced the Buccaneers into a third-and-9, but Tom Brady, who has come out confidently heaving the ball downfield, found wide receiver Chris Godwin, who made a juggling catch as he fell to the turf for a 52-yard reception. On the next play, running back Leonard Fournette ran around the right end, breaking tackles, spinning and bulling his way into the end zone for a 20-yard score.
Looking as fearsome as it was against New Orleans in the wild-card round, the Buccaneers stuffed the Packers on Green Bay’s first drive. Tampa Bay’s defenders were swarming to the ball, animated and seemed to anticipating running lanes.
Green Bay picked up a first down on its second play when tight end Marcedes Lewis caught a 14-yard pass on the weak side of the formation. But running attempts by Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones, who were both stars of Green Bay’s victory over the Los Angeles Rams last weekend, gained a total of 3 rushing yards as both players were met at the line of scrimmage on their carries.
Then, Rodgers was sacked by Shaq Barrett while trying to scramble on a third-down pass play. That forced a Green Bay punt.
Buccaneers 7, Packers 0
The Buccaneers opened the game with an impressive first drive with quarterback Tom Brady looking poised, efficient and at ease. Tampa Bay made it look easy while converting three third down situations, the last a 15-yard touchdown reception by Mike Evans.
Bucs 1st & 2nd down: 6 plays, 10 yards
Bucs 3rd down: 3 plays, 56 yards
— ProFootballReference (@pfref) January 24, 2021
On the first third down opportunity, the Packers blitzed and Tom Brady calmly waited in the pocket for wide receiver Mike Evans to release downfield. Brady then lofted a crisp, well-placed touch pass over the Packers defenders and into the arms of Evans for 27 yards. On Tampa Bay’s next third down, Brady fired a bullet to wide receiver Chris Godwin for 14 yards.
On a third and 7, Evans was slightly open in the left end zone, where Brady, who had perfect protection through the possession, again beat the coverage. The drive was 10 plays for 66 yards.
It appears the snow that was forecast for the vicinity around Lambeau Field this afternoon has subsided just before kickoff in Green Bay. But the area received more than a dusting of snow earlier in the afternoon. Temperatures for kickoff are hovering around 28 degrees. And with a nearly 10-mile an hour wind, the wind chill is estimaged at 21 degrees.
But there is no additional snow in the forecast. That doesn’t mean it won’t snow — it’s central Wisconsin, after all. The atmosphere is typical for a January playoff game in Green Bay: players breath is visible when they exhale. Most players are wearing gloves and there heaters on the sidelines.
Lambeau Field’s extensive heating system has kept the turf there from collecting snow (the field was covered with a tarp before the game). And five minutes before the game’s 3:05 p.m. Eastern kickoff, the sun emerged from behind the persistent clouds in the area.
Sunday’s N.F.C. championship is Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers’s 20th career playoff game, which includes a 4-0 postseason run to a Super Bowl title in the 2010 season. But the Packers’ record with Rodgers under center has been mediocre at best since the Super Bowl victory.
The Packers have been 7-7 in the playoffs since 2010, including three losses in conference championship games. While each of the conference games were on the road, the last two, in San Francisco after the 2019 regular season and Atlanta three years earlier, were blowouts. Green Bay also lost the 2014 conference championship game in overtime at Seattle, 28-22.
The Packers have also lost in the divisional round three times, at home to the Giants in 2011, at San Francisco in 2012 and at Arizona in 2015, and in the wild-card round at home against the 49ers in 2013.
Rodgers is 12-8 overall in the postseason.
Tom Brady in Conference Championships:
9-4 W-L, 18 TD, 14 INT, 6.95 Y/A, 83.3 rating
Tom Brady in Road Conf. Championships:
3-3 W-L, 6 TD, 5 INT, 6.99 Y/A, 80.9 rating
— ProFootballReference (@pfref) January 24, 2021
Tampa Bay will be without receiver Antonio Brown, who led the team in receiving targets during the final five weeks of the regular season, in the N.F.C. championship game because of a knee injury sustained in the Buccaneers’ victory over New Orleans last weekend.
“He wasn’t as close as we’d hoped, so we’ll get him ready for the next one,” Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians said of Brown, who was an All-Pro four times for the Pittsburgh Steelers and has played in two conference championship games, as well as a Super Bowl. Brown signed a free-agent contract with Tampa Bay in late October, after serving an eight-game suspension handed down by the N.F.L. after pleading no contest to burglary and battery charges and receiving two years’ probation.
Brown still faces a league investigation into accusations in a lawsuit that he sexually assaulted his former trainer in 2017 and 2018. Brown has denied the allegations.
“Other guys are going to have step up and do the job, I’ve got a lot of confidence in the guys that haven’t been out there as much when A.B’s been in there,” Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady said of Brown, who had 45 catches for 483 yards and four touchdowns in eight regular season games.
Rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was also ruled out for the game after testing his ankle injury in pregame warm-ups. Winfield played in all 18 games and finished with 91 tackles during the regular season, third-most on the team.
Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans, who leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns, is available but figures to be limited by a knee injury.
One of the keys to Tampa Bay’s six-game win streak, which has included two road playoff games, has been the Buccaneers’ ability to force turnovers and to convert those miscues into points. In the 2020 postseason, the Buccaneers have scored 27 points directly related to five turnovers — four in an upset of the New Orleans Saints in last weekend’s divisional round victory.
But against the Packers, Tampa Bay’s defense will be going up against a team that lost a league-low 11 turnovers during the regular season.
“Everyone understands the emphasis on protecting the football at all times, especially in the playoffs,” Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “And as offensive players, we have to know that’s a constant emphasis of the defense. So it’s a recognized priority.”
In 16 regular-season games and one playoff game, Rodgers has thrown just five interceptions (and 50 touchdowns).
If they win on Sunday, the Buccaneers will be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
Several Buccaneers were asked last week about whether they had considered playing in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., which is within sight of the team’s practice facility. Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David said he noticed the Super Bowl decorations and banners being added to the stadium on his drive to practice on Wednesday, which, he said, drove home the game’s consequence.
But Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians was of a different mind-set.
“We don’t play that game this week — that’s the message to everybody,” Arians said. “We play the Packers in the N.F.C. championship game. If you start thinking about the Super Bowl, you get beat and will be packing your bags on Monday.”
While no team has ever played a Super Bowl in its home stadium, in January 1985 the San Francisco 49ers played Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium in nearby Palo Alto, Calif., and in January 1980 the Los Angeles Rams played Super Bowl XIV in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Green Bay and Tampa Bay met in Week 6 of the 2020 regular season, on Oct. 18, with the Buccaneers routing the Packers, 38-10. Green Bay jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but Tampa Bay’s defense kept quarterback Aaron Rodgers off balance by sacking him five times. Things were not much better for Green Bay when it turned to the ground game as top running back Aaron Jones had only 15 yards on 10 carries.
Behind the veteran tackle Ndamukong Suh and linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul (a Pro Bowl selection) and Devin White, the Buccaneers generated tremendous pressure throughout the regular season, toppling quarterbacks 48 times, tied for the fourth-highest sack total in the N.F.L.
It was the third time Rodgers and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady have gone head-to-head. In 2018, Brady’s New England Patriots thrashed Green Bay in Foxborough, Mass., 31-17. In 2014 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., the Packers defeated Brady and New England, 26-21.
Sunday’s game will be the first time Rodgers and Brady meet in the playoffs.