When the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field for the NFC Championship Game on Sunday it will have been 98 days since their last matchup. Everyone familiar with the two teams knows what happened that afternoon at Raymond James Stadium. Hell, anyone that’s been on Twitter, watched a minute of ESPN or listened to sports talk radio the last few days knows what happened.
Green Bay jumped out to a 10-0 lead before two Aaron Rodgers interceptions, including one taken back for a touchdown, turned the game on its head. Tampa Bay scored 28 points in the second quarter on its way to putting up 38-straight points in a 38-10 win. It led Buccaneers linebacker Devin White to say afterwards “we knew those guys didn’t deserve to be on the same field with us because we’ve got too much talent.”
“Hey, he was right,” coach Matt LaFleur said Monday while acknowledging some of his players would use that quote as motivation. “They whipped us and there’s no sense in talking about it. The only thing you can do is you’ve got to prepare the best you can and go prove it.”
It was a humbling experience for a Packers offense that had run roughshod over their first four opponents to the tune of 38 points per game and a 4-0 start. Rodgers was sacked four times in the game, which accounted for 20% of his season total, and had a passer rating of just 35.4. Green Bay did have 94 yards rushing, the fifth-most against Tampa Bay’s defense this season, but nearly half of that came on two runs and Aaron Jones was held to 15 yards on 10 carries.
Green Bay’s defense was put in some bad positions by the offense but still allowed 324 yards, including 158 on the ground. The Buccaneers went 4-for-4 in the red zone, and quarterback Tom Brady was hit just four times and was not sacked.
It was by far the worst game Rodgers and his teammates played all year. So what does that afternoon mean this week with a berth to Super Bowl LV on the line?
“I think the Week 6 game matters just about as much as when the Saints went to Tampa (in November) and beat them 38-3,” Rodgers said during his appearance on The Pat McAfee Show Tuesday. “It obviously didn’t affect them last week at all. Didn’t matter at all. We lost by 28 at their place. They lost by 35 at home. They just beat the Saints by 10. This is a funny game. Things change, people change, teams change and evolve, and either get better or worse. There’s not much staying the same.
To Rodgers point, both teams look at least a little bit different from a personnel standpoint. For the Packers, cornerback Kevin King and wide receiver Allen Lazard did not play due to injury, while left tackle David Bakhtiari and safety Darnell Savage both left the game early with injuries of their own. Though Bakhtiari won’t be on the field Sunday after tearing his ACL prior to Week 17, King, Savage and Lazard will play the same vital roles they’ve occupied in Green Bay’s seven-game winning streak.
The Buccaneers will also have a slightly different look having added wide receiver Antonio Brown (day-to-day with knee injury) to the mix, a healthy Leonard Fournette at running back and potentially having run-stuffing defensive tackle Vita Vea back after he missed three months with an injury. They, however, won’t have starting right guard Alex Cappa after he was placed on injured reserve last week.
“There’s a lot of things that happened between then and now,” Rodgers said, “so I’ll give (Week 6) as much credence as they gave that 38-3 game, which obviously meant nothing to them when they went out and beat the Saints on Sunday.”
Since the NFL merger with the AFL in 1970, there have been 15 conference title games that were rematches from the regular season in which one team beat the other by at least two touchdowns, according to FootballPerspective.com. In those games, the team on the losing end went 4-11 in the title game meeting. Three of those games involved the Packers and all were losses. In 2007, the New York Giants punched their ticket to the Super Bowl with an overtime win at Lambeau Field. In 2014, the Packers collapsed in the final minutes in an overtime loss to Seattle. And then last year LaFleur and his squad were trounced at San Francisco for a second time in two months.
“What’s happened in the past, at this point, really doesn’t matter,” LaFleur said. “It’s about what we do moving forward. We’ve got to make sure we learn from our past mistakes and try to apply that. But, again, you’ve still got to go out there and compete at a high level when the stakes are pretty damn. You’ve got to go earn it and we know it’s going to be a great challenge.”