TAMPA — This is what a respectable journalist would tell Bucs fans this week:
Folks, it doesn’t look good. The Packers are the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and have won their last seven games by an average margin of nearly 15 points. The weather is going to be in the 20s with a good possibility of snow.
And Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers has won his last four playoff games at Lambeau Field while throwing for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.
So, count yourself lucky that hardly anyone considers me respectable. And, after 20 years of writing columns as opposed to news, I’m not even sure I qualify as a journalist anymore.
That’s why, instead of pointing out that Green Bay began the week as a 3.5-point favorite in the NFC Championship Game, I prefer to tell you what you want to hear. Specifically, 10 reasons the Bucs will win Sunday.
1. No, no, no, you’re not running here. No defense has been better against the run the past two seasons than the Bucs and, if Vita Vea is available after missing three months with a broken ankle, their prospects will look even better. Aaron Jones might break off a long run or two for the Packers, but the Bucs eventually will force Green Bay into third-and-long situations.
2. Congrats on your shutdown cornerback. The Saints practically made Mike Evans a non-factor last week. Tampa Bay’s all-time leading receiver was held to one reception for 3 yards. Antonio Brown also was held to one catch for 10 yards. And you know what? It didn’t matter. More than half of Tom Brady’s passes were thrown to running backs and tight ends. Green Bay cornerback Jaire Alexander may be the best in the league and entirely capable of shutting down a Pro Bowl talent such as Evans, but the Packers still will have to contend with Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette and others.
3. I see your Aaron Rodgers, and raise you a Tom Brady. Yes, Rodgers is a beast at Lambeau Field. And it’s hard to argue with his numbers when the calendar turns to January and the temperatures drop below freezing. But, you might have heard, Brady had some postseason success before he got to Tampa Bay. Based on data from pro-football-reference.com, Brady has a 14-2 record in the playoffs in games when the temperature was 32 degrees or below at kickoff. Let’s just hope he kept his lucky thermal undies.
4. They can’t continue at this pace, can they? The Packers are good at protecting the ball. I mean, crazy good. Since Matt LaFleur took over as head coach, the Packers have had zero turnovers in 21 of their 35 games, including the playoffs. Their record is 20-1 in those games. But that means they are 8-6 in games when they have even a single turnover. The Bucs got three interceptions against Drew Brees on Sunday. Just saying.
5. The kids are all right: I wrote last week that Tampa Bay’s young secondary would have to step up to beat the Saints. They didn’t just step up, they sent Brees screaming into retirement.
6. Welcome to the fight, gentlemen. Even though they were winning games against inferior opponents, the Bucs got a little pass-happy in December. They’ve rectified that in the playoffs. After averaging a combined 14.5 carries per game in the final six weeks of the season, Fournette and Ronald Jones have averaged nearly 25 carries in the two postseason games. That’s absolutely critical for Brady’s safety.
7. Speaking of which … Putting pressure on Brady has been the one surefire way to hurt the Bucs, and the Packers do not have a particularly fearsome pass rush. It was a long time ago, but they barely laid a finger on Brady the last time the teams met in October. Green Bay’s defense was 29th in the NFL in the percentage of pass plays that they knocked down a quarterback.
8. Bucs finally have a placekicker. Ryan Succop has turned in a quietly consistent season after Tampa Bay spent years searching for a placekicker. Including the playoffs, Succop has nailed 35-of-38 field goals, including 1-of-2 from beyond 50 yards. (Checks notes and sees Green Bay’s Mason Crosby has hit 37 of his last 38 field-goal attempts, including 5-of-6 from beyond 50.) Okay, maybe this one is a stalemate.
9. A star is born. Who will be the best player on the field Sunday? You could make an argument it’s Alexander. Or Rodgers. Or, if you’re feeling nostalgic, maybe even Brady. I would vote for Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White.
10. $%&#. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup without playing a single postseason game in Tampa. The Rays reached Game 6 of the World Series without a single fan going to Tropicana Field. Wouldn’t it just be a perfect coda to 2020 to have the Bucs in the Super Bowl when capacity at Raymond James Stadium was restricted by the pandemic?
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.