NFC Championship: Will the Packers Cover as Home Favorites?

nfl logo 100The excitement continues this weekend with the NFL’s version of their own final four. The conference championships kick off Sunday with two generational talents taking the field in Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Rodgers and the Packers will be playing for the chance at their second Super Bowl appearance in the past ten years, while Brady would be competing for the seventh Lombardi trophy of his career if Tampa Bay were to win. On the opposite side of the bracket, last year’s Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs will face the Buffalo Bills, whose last AFC Championship appearance was over 25 years ago. Both games are a rematch from earlier in the year, where the Packers fell to the Bucs 38-10 and the Chiefs beat the Bills 26-17. They will meet again this weekend, but this time for a chance to play on Super Bowl Sunday. We are down to just three games left in the NFL season. Here is one of my favorite picks for Championship Weekend.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers +3.5 at Green Bay Packers

green bay packersOver 100 players will suit up for the NFC Championship, but fans will be focused on two of them for most of the afternoon. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have combined to throw for 130,449 yards and 993 touchdown passes. Of the 551 games they’ve started in their careers, they’ve faced each other only three times, including once in Week 6 this season. In this year’s matchup, the Buccaneers dominated and forced Rodgers into his only multi-interception game of the season. Aside from that game, Rodgers has been a wizard with the football this year, carrying the Packers to a 13-3 record and leading the MVP race.

He will need to be near perfect on Sunday against a Tampa Bay defense that’s played well all year. According to Football Outsider’s DVOA, the Buccaneers rank third in overall defense and fifth in pass defense. They also rank first in explosive pass rate allowed since Week 13 and are coming off one of their best performances of the year, holding Drew Brees to just 134 yards and forcing three interceptions. They will be up to the task on Sunday against Rodgers and Co.

Tampa’s secondary is solid, but the most determining factor in this game will be their pass rush. If Rodgers is left to play with a clean pocket on Sunday, the Bucs can kiss their chances of a home Super Bowl goodbye. Rodgers is the best in the NFL when he’s not under pressure, including a passer rating of 130, 40 touchdowns, and only four interceptions. But Tampa Bay has a remedy for that, as they are sixth in the league in adjusted sack rate, and third in quarterback pressures per drop back. In the Week 6 matchup between the two teams, Todd Bowles, Buccaneer’s defensive coordinator, blitzed on 21 of 35 dropbacks, and it would have been much more if the game had been closer. Tampa’s front seven will have a few creative new pressures drawn up to keep Rodgers on his toes. The Pack offense versus Bucs defense is strength on strength and will be good viewing.

On the other side of the coin, it’s a different story. One of the Buccaneers’ main goals will be to maintain possession of the ball and keep Rodgers on the bench. The best way to do that is to run the football. As proven in their first two playoff games, Tampa Bay can do just that. The two-headed monster that is Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette combined for 269 yards in their last two games against two of the toughest defenses in the league, New Orleans, and Washington. They will have an easier time against a Green Bay defense that is susceptible to the run, ranking 18th in run defense according to DVOA. They also rank 28th in run success rate allowed since Week 13. Even in last week’s matchup against the Rams, a run-heavy team, they allowed 64% of runs to grade successfully. For measure, 60% was the worst mark any team gave up during the regular season. Look for a big day from Tampa’s backfield.

The weather will also lead to more of a run-heavy game script. In true Wisconsin fashion, the temperature is supposed to be in the 20s with a 30% chance of snow near kickoff. Both quarterbacks have good records in freezing conditions, so this one will come down to defense and running the ball. Best case scenario? I see Tom Brady picking apart this Green Bay defense with underneath routes and inside handoffs, and the Bucs winning by a score. Worst-case scenario? Tampa Bay is down by ten late in the game and we get a backdoor touchdown by TB12 to cash the ticket. Either way, I am grabbing the points with the Buccaneers in this one. Tampa Bay +3.5

  
Russ Thomas is a sports modeler and Husker alum from western Nebraska. Aside from being a huge Husker fan, he grew up going to Broncos home games and supports all Colorado sports teams. He developed an NFL handicapping model that has been profitable five out of the past six seasons, including finishing 132nd out of 3,232 entries in the Las Vegas Westgate SuperContest. Football is king where he is from, but Russ also handicaps and wagers on NHL and PGA, as well as plays DFS.

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