While Divisional Weekend play on Saturday went according to the form book, with the Packers dispatching the Rams in a complete performance and the Bills going coast to coast with a pick-six to crush Baltimore’s hopes, Sunday was a different beast.
Cleveland’s Super Bowl hopes went up in smoke despite a valiant effort at Arrowhead, with Andy Reid pulling out a 4th-and short play that flummoxed even the master of prognostication himself, Tony Romo. And to execute it flawlessly with backup quarterback Chad Henne in the game was the cherry on top.
The late game saw the underdog Buccaneers and the ageless one himself Tom Brady ride a stellar defensive performance to topple their divisional rival New Orleans. Scenes after the game seemed to indicate that this would indeed be the final game for Drew Brees, and truthfully the Hall of Famer seemed to have lost some of the juice in his passes – even going back to last season.
It all sets up for a fascinating Championship Weekend slate, with the AFC’s top two seeds facing off (most neutrals wanted it this way) and Brady versus Rodgers on the NFC side of the bracket. The Super Bowl is tantalizingly close for all four teams. Let’s dig into this week’s clashes.
Note that the over/unders are taken from VegasInsider.com
TAMPA BAY at GREEN BAY (-3.5 to -3) (Over/Under 51)
(Sunday, 3:05 pm ET, FOX)
History is firmly on the side of the Packers. Since the NFC Championship game began in 1970, home teams have posted a 33-17 SU record. However, road teams have fought back in the last 10 years, going 6-4 SU with all the victories by seven points or less. Those fine margins are typical of games of this magnitude, and one would have to assume that in a battle between two greats on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks, the margins will once again be razor thin. Vegas had given the Packers a half-point edge at -3.5, but money has since come in on the Brady-led Bucs to bring the line to -3. With low temperatures and fog expected in Lambeau Field, execution and precision will be pivotal, so the Bucs will need to avoid the miscommunications and mistimed passes that have plagued them at times this season. Even in New Orleans last week the offense sputtered; it required a defensive masterclass in the second half to get the Bucs over the hump. A similarly balanced approach – a stifling defense to bully Aaron Rodgers and a reliable ground game – will be two of the boxes the Bucs must check to keep pace.
Since Matt LaFleur took over as Packers head coach last season, his team is second only to Buffalo in cover rate, beating the spread 62.9% of the time. And despite holding the number one seed and making their second consecutive NFC Championship game, there is a sense that Green Bay is lacking something. Perhaps it is how they win games; not always on the arms of Rodgers, but behind a punishing and cohesive offensive line with a potent backfield, or even with a defense that doesn’t garner the respect it should. The pieces are there to trouble Brady, and the Packers’ secondary should like their chances of matching up to make the Bucs passer hold the ball just a tick longer than he would like. Of course, there is always the possibility that this game comes down to the Rodgers versus Brady arms race that everyone and their dog wants to see. The level of quarterbacking that Rodgers has produced consistently this season has been almost unmatched in his storied career. Like a chess grandmaster who has seen all the permutations on the field, Rodgers has been uncanny in his ability to pick his moments to strike, while at others remaining patient. The last meeting between these teams earlier in the season was a resounding victory for the Bucs; the script may not be completely flipped here, but the Packers have enough to get over the hump and book their Super Bowl ticket, denying the Bucs the chance to play at their home stadium for the big dance.
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