In the process of nearing the exit ramp for the Super Bowl, possibly retiring Drew Brees and vanquishing the Saints’ supremacy over their franchise, the Bucs achieved something else similarly gratifying last weekend in New Orleans.
They proved their nationally televised, Nov. 8 humiliation against the Saints was an aberration.
“It’s a different football team than that week,” coach Bruce Arians said moments after Sunday’s 30-20 triumph, which occurred 10 weeks after the Saints’ 38-3 romp at Raymond James Stadium. “I try to tell everybody that; nobody wants to believe me.”
Naturally, teams evolve or regress over the course of a 17-week regular season, based on attrition, acquisition or plain organic development. But fluky, imperfect storms totally unbecoming a team can occur on a given Sunday as well.
The Bucs proved that last weekend in New Orleans.
The Packers are bent on proving the exact same thing on their turf Sunday. Remember that 38-10 beatdown from the Bucs on Oct. 18? Completely irrelevant, Bucs coaches insist. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles isn’t even watching it this week.
“You watch the last six or eight (games),” Bowles said. “The beginning of the year, everybody’s trying to figure themselves out. That game means nothing way back when.”
For what it’s worth, history favors the Bucs in Sunday’s rematch at potentially frigid Lambeau Field. NFL Network’s James Palmer recently pointed out teams that have defeated an opponent by at least 20 points in the regular season, then played that team again in the conference championship game are 13-3 all-time.
But expect history to be bucked by conventional wisdom, which suggests Aaron Rodgers won’t again throw two interceptions — including a pick-six — in a four-play span as he did three months ago. That sequence, which erased a 10-0 Green Bay lead, forced the Packers out of their rhythm and run game. Nine of their 21 rushing attempts were in the first quarter.
“I think we all learned that when things aren’t going your way, this league has a way of humbling you,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “And I think a lot of us, including myself ... we started to press and you can’t do that in this league, especially when you’re going against such a great defense like we were.”
In lieu of pressing, look for Green Bay to pound. Its backfield triumvirate of Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon now is fully formed, enabling Rodgers to employ his renowned play-action chops almost at will. The Packers averaged 139.4 rushing yards in their first five games, including only 94 at Tampa Bay.
In their last seven, they’ve averaged 163.9. In Saturday’s 32-18 playoff triumph against the Rams, they totaled 188 and two touchdowns on 36 carries, led by Jones (14 carries, 99 yards, one TD).
And since those two interceptions on back-to-back drives against the Bucs, Rodgers has totaled three.
“I think you look at what they’ve done in their last eight ball games,” Arians said Thursday. “It’s different, so you defend what you’re seeing now. That (first) game’s history. They’re a different football team and we are, too.”
Defensively, Green Bay will bring a resurgent pass rush that didn’t sack Brady in the first encounter. In their last eight games, the Packers have averaged 5.6 quarterback hits and three sacks.
“They’re getting turnovers, they’re getting to the quarterback,” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “They’re stingy, they’re not giving up a lot of points. They’re playing at a high level.”
Then again, so are the Bucs, who have done some evolving of their own. In a three-month span, Tom Brady has developed a striking clairvoyance with his receivers, and a complementary backfield tandem (Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones) has emerged.
Defensively, inside linebacker Devin White (10 tackles, two hits and a sack in the first game) continues evolving into one of the league’s most disruptive forces, and a secondary teeming with first- and second-year guys accounted for three of the Saints’ four turnovers last week.
“They’re playing great football,” Bowles said, “and we’re a different team as well.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.