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NFC Matchups: Where else to start but Brady and Rodgers?

Fri Jan 22 1:32pm ET
By BARRY WILNER
AP Pro Football Writer

Green Bay Packers' Davante Adams catches a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers during the first half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Los Angeles Rams, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)


Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) passes during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Los Angeles Rams Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)


Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Mike Evans (13) during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)


Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebacker Devin White, right, intercepts a pass in front of New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Brett Duke)


Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers waves to spectators after an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Los Angeles Rams Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers defeated the Rams 32-18 to advance to the NFC championship game. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)


More than 100 players will suit up for Sunday's NFC championship game, so try to ignore all those talking heads making mention of only two: Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

Yes, it's as juicy a matchup of quarterbacks as the current NFL can offer. The Battle of the Bays might well be decided by what Mr. Six Rings does against the Packers' defense, or what the 2020 All-Pro Rodgers manages versus the Buccaneers' D.

The only time Green Bay (14-3) was overwhelmed this season was a 38-10 loss in October to the Bucs (13-5).

That said, here's what each team will be looking at in Lambeau Field.

WHEN THE BUCS HAVE THE BALL:

We'll get to Brady in a moment, because a decent amount of Tampa Bay's chances will depend on running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones being productive. They have been, particularly Fournette, in recent games.

If the offense is balanced, Brady is at his most dangerous. He might occasionally test cornerbacks Jaire Alexander, Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan with deep throws, but more likely will rely on stud wideout Mike Evans, the re-emerging Antonio Brown, and Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller on shorter plays that allow them to gain yards after catch. Coach Bruce Arians ruled out the re-emerging Antonio Brown because of a knee injury, but a missed tackle on the others by any Green Bay defender easily could lead to six points.

While the Bucs have the more established tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate, they might not have the most impactful at the position (see below). But Gronk in particular has always been a big-play guy in big games for Brady, and Green Bay doesn't have linebackers who excel in coverage. Look for safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage to handle the big guy as best they can.

For Brady to get a shot at a seventh Super Bowl title, his protection, anchored by left guard Ali Marpet and rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs, must stand up against Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, both potential game changers for the Packers. Green Bay will do some blitzing, though not as much as Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles figures to do.

Don't expect the Bucs (nor the Packers) to commit many turnovers, either.

WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL:

Green Bay doesn't have the multi-pronged attack Tampa Bay does, but it has the top receiver in this game in All-Pro Davante Adams. It's pretty simple when it comes to somewhat neutralizing Rodgers, who is having perhaps the best season of his Hall of Fame-caliber career: slow down Adams. Few opponents have done so no matter who or how many DBs cover Adams.

The burden will fall much of the time on an underrated group of cornerbacks featuring Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Indeed, both teams have impressive secondaries, with rookie Antoine Winfield Jr., and Jordan Whitehead performing well at safety for Bowles.

Unlike Brady, Rodgers can create outside the pocket, and he's especially dangerous when doing so. His star running back, Aaron Jones, not only is terrific in the ground game, but he's a top-level receiver. Few teams run screens to wideouts as well as the Pack - except the Buccaneers, who rank second in that category to Green Bay's fifth.

Drops can be an issue for Adams' comrades, but Rodgers seems to have confidence in all of them - Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and TE Robert Tonyan, who might be the most improved player in the NFL for 2020. Tonyan seems to get more open than any other tight end in the league.

His matchup with Tampa Bay's superb linebackers, Devin White and Lavonte David, could be decisive.

The Packers' All-Pro center, Corey Linsley, probably will need to help out against sack threats Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett. LG Elgton Jenkins had a strong season. Green Bay's other standout blocker, All-Pro LT David Bakhtiari, is injured.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Not much to laud on either side. Not very special, no.

Veteran placekicker Mason Crosby is solid, making all 16 field goal attempts, but missed four PATs for Green Bay. He knows how to kick in rough conditions, of course.

Packers punter JK Scott also can deal with the winds and weather at Lambeau, but he's a bit inconsistent. Green Bay struggles in punt coverage and rarely threatens to break a return, but the Bucs are susceptible to them, especially on kickoffs.

Tampa Bay's Ryan Succop, now in his 12th pro season, made 28 of 31 field goal tries but missed five extra points. No, we don't get it, either.

Punter Bradley Pinion has a big leg.

COACHING:

A real contrast here.

Arians has been around as long as the NFL itself; well, not quite, but this is his 46th year in coaching. He began in college in 1975 and in the pros in 2001, and his open-minded approach on offense always has matched changes in the game. Arians is a two-time AP Coach of the Year, winning as the interim with Indianapolis in 2012 when Chuck Pagano was battling leukemia, and in 2014 with Arizona.

It took a while, but he has melded the play calls with Brady's preferences, and he has allowed Bowles to oversee a big-play defense.

Matt LaFleur, also an offensive mastermind but more in the workings of the recent schemes, has meshed beautifully with Rodgers and what his quarterback prefers called. LaFleur, 41, put more emphasis on the running game to relieve Rodgers of carrying the entire load.

Mike Pettine, like Bowles a former head coach, has put together an aggressive squad led by the Smith Brothers and Alexander.

INTANGIBLES:

While this is old hat for Brady - in a football sense, isn't everything to Brady? - his new franchise has been to one Super Bowl, winning it in February 2003. There's a hunger in Tampa, and there's always a hunger in Brady.

Plus, no franchise has ever played in a Super Bowl on its home field.

Among Cheeseheads, there's a belief that Rodgers and the Pack should have been in more than one NFL title game. This is the best overall team he has been on, including the 2010 champions.

And the memory of being blown out so badly in last year's NFC championship by San Francisco remains fresh. As does the 38-10 loss to Tampa Bay three months ago.

''What's happened in the past at this point, it really doesn't matter,'' LaFleur said. ''It's about what we do moving forward.''

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Player Notes
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jan 22 1:30pm ET

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are officially activating defensive tackle Vita Vea (leg) from Injured Reserve on Friday, and he will be eligible to play in the NFC Championship game against the Packers on Sunday, according to a source. Vea has been out of action since fracturing his leg in Week 5, but he'll be in the trenches for Tampa's strong defensive front in an effort to slow down quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. Rakeem Nunez-Roches has been holding down the fort at defensive tackle with Vea out this year. We wouldn't be surprised if Vea is limited in how many snaps he can play in his first game back, though, so don't be surprised if Nunez-Roches continues to play a big role. Either way, it's a slight upgrade for a Buccaneers Defense that has a tall task ahead of them at Lambeau Field.

From RotoBaller

Antonio Brown Jan 22 12:40pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) has been ruled out for the NFC Championship game against the Packers. Brown's knee injury that he suffered in the divisional round win over the Saints wasn't deemed serious- though he was unable to take the practice field on Wednesday and Thursday. While head coach Bruce Arians said that his star wideout wouldn't need to practice to play, he also noted this morning that the knee would swell from the team's flight to Green Bay, so playing him wouldn't make much sense. Fellow wideouts Tyler Johnson and Scotty Miller will take on a larger role in the offense. Miller makes for a potential value DFS play, as he and Tom Brady showcased the ability to make big plays down the field earlier this season.

From RotoBaller

Vance McDonald Jan 22 11:50am ET

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald announced his retirement from the NFL on Friday. McDonald was a second-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2013. He spent four years with the Niners before being traded to Pittsburgh shortly before the 2017 season. McDonald played in 101 career games (77 starts) and finished with 181 catches for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns. In his four years with the Steelers, McDonald reeled in 117 passes for 1,170 yards and eight touchdowns in 53 games (47 starts). His best season came in 2018, when he caught 50 passes for 610 yards (12.2 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. The 30-year-old dealt with his fair share of injuries in eight seasons. His retirement will save the team $5.2 million in salary cap space heading into the 2021 season.

From RotoBaller

Drew Brees Jan 22 11:50am ET

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees' (foot, shoulder) wife Brittany revealed that the 42-year-old signal-caller was playing through a torn rotator cuff and a torn fascia in his foot. "He's as courageous and as tough a player as I've ever been around," head coach Sean Payton said, via The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Brees' injuries likely played a part in his struggles pushing the ball downfield, and he threw three interceptions in what will be the final game of his storied career in the Divisional Round loss to the Buccaneers. He has yet to make his retirement official, but it's expected to come eventually, especially after playing through other injuries that we didn't know about. If this is the end, Brees will go down in NFL history as one of the greatest to ever play the position.

From RotoBaller

Davante Adams Jan 21 11:03pm ET

Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams led the NFL with 23 red zone receptions and 14 red zone touchdowns in 2020, and his 46 red zone touchdowns since 2016 are 17 more than any other player.

Fantasy Spin: Adams led the NFL with 18 receiving touchdowns, tied for second with 115 receptions and finished in a tie for fifth in receiving yards. His status as the unquestioned go-to target for Aaron Rodgers should continue to make him one of the safest fantasy options at any position for the foreseeable future.

From TheHuddle

Derrick Henry Jan 21 10:23pm ET

Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry led all running backs with 75 forced missed tackles this season, and his 1,490 rushing yards after contact were the most in the league.

Fantasy Spin: Henry has been a fantasy monster since Ryan Tannehill took over as the Tennessee quarterback. His massive workload will likely take a toll at some point, but there is no reason he shouldn't deliver another RB1 campaign in 2021.

From TheHuddle

Aaron Rodgers Jan 21 9:53pm ET

Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers led the NFL with 1,242 yards on passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield during the 2020 season.

Fantasy Spin: Rodgers also led the league in touchdown passes in a season that could net him MVP honors for the third time and a second Super Bowl ring. After seeing his numbers dip a bit the last couple of years, he is back in the mix of top-five fantasy options at the quarterback position heading into next season.

From TheHuddle

Patrick Mahomes Jan 21 9:30pm ET

Things are trending in the right direction for Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (concussion) to play in the AFC Championship against the Bills on Sunday. Mahomes was limited in practice for the second straight day on Thursday and took the majority of the snaps on offense, a good sign that he didn't suffer a setback after practicing on Wednesday. The hope is that he's a full participant in practice on Friday, which means he'd likely be on his way toward being cleared from the league's protocol before Sunday. The 25-year-old former MVP will be a tad more risky at his elevated DFS price against Buffalo coming off a head injury that knocked him out of the Divisional Round game against the Browns, but Mahomes should put up numbers in what could be a high-scoring affair this weekend as long as he doesn't suffer another head injury.

From RotoBaller

Trevor Lawrence Jan 21 9:20pm ET

The Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to hire Darrell Bevell as their new offensive coordinator, according to sources. Several teams were trying to hire Bevell after he finished the 2020 season as the Detroit Lions interim head coach. The 51-year-old was the offensive coordinator in Detroit the last two years, with the team averaging 22.5 points per game and 348.5 total yards per game in his two seasons at the helm. Bevell became the Seahawks offensive coordinator in 2011, 11 seasons after breaking into the NFL as an assistant quarterbacks coach with Green Bay. He made back-to-back trips to the Super Bowl with Seattle in 2013-14 and won one championship. His biggest task will be working with a likely rookie quarterback -- expected to be Clemson's Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall selection in the draft -- to mold Jacksonville's offense to the young signal-caller's strengths.

From RotoBaller

Chris Godwin Jan 21 6:53pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (quadriceps) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.

Fantasy Spin: Godwin should be ready for the NFC Championship game as long as he does not suffer a setback. He will see plenty of targets against the Green Bay Packers and can be a starting option in all fantasy leagues.

From TheHuddle

Mike Evans Jan 21 6:53pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (knee) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.

Fantasy Spin: Evans continues to be one of the main options in the passing game when healthy and is a must-start option in all fantasy leagues if active.

From TheHuddle

Ronald Jones II Jan 21 6:43pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones (finger, quadriceps) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.

Fantasy Spin: Jones shared playing time with Leonard Fournette in the last game but may see a few more touches this week. He can be a starting option in most fantasy leagues.

From TheHuddle

Jamaal Williams Jan 21 6:33pm ET

Green Bay Packers RB Jamaal Williams (ankle) was limited during practice Thursday, Jan. 21.

Fantasy Spin: Williams received 12 carries in the Divisional Round playoff game and probably will receive a similar workload against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He can be a possible flex option in some leagues but is not a must-start option.

From TheHuddle

Vita Vea Jan 21 6:13pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers DT Vita Vea (ankle) participated in practice Thursday, Jan. 21, and 'looked fit and didn't appear to be having any challenges getting in and out of stance.' according to ESPN's Jenna Laine. 'Vita moved around pretty good today when it was full speed,' head coach Bruce Arians said.

From TheHuddle

Antonio Brown Jan 21 6:03pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown (knee) did not practice for a second consecutive day Thursday, Jan. 21, and is expected to be a game-time decision for the NFC Championship game versus the Green Bay Packers, according to head coach Bruce Arians.

Fantasy Spin: As Arians told reporters, Brown is "veteran enough" to handle his business Sunday without getting in any practice this week if it comes to that. Either way, a limited Brown is enough of a reason to back off of him in all fantasy formats, especially because the Buccaneers are deep at receiver. Scott Miller and Tyler Johnson would likely split snaps if he is unable to go.

From TheHuddle

Chris Godwin Jan 21 6:00pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin is poised for a great showing against the Packers in the NFC Championship game. Godwin has 19 targets in the Buccaneers' two playoff games, a mark that leads the team. He could be in line to receive more work than usual, as Mike Evans will likely have to deal with star corner Jaire Alexander and Antonio Brown (knee) is a game-time decision. The drops have been an issue for Godwin in the postseason, but Tom Brady's trust in him hasn't wavered. He won't be as pricey as Stefon Diggs or Davante Adams, but he could provide similar production, making him a great DFS value play this week.

From RotoBaller

Cole Beasley Jan 21 5:53pm ET

Buffalo Bills WR Cole Beasley (knee) was added to the injury report and limited in practice Thursday, Jan. 21.

Fantasy Spin: There has been no indication as of yet from Buffalo's beat writers that Beasley had a setback Thursday, but his name was a curious omission from the injury report on Wednesday considering he is far from 100 percent. Friday's practice report will be telling in terms of what fantasy owners and DFS players should expect, but the likely absence of rookie Gabriel Davis may help Beasley bounce back from his bagel against the Baltimore Ravens in a big way.

From TheHuddle

Mike Evans Jan 21 5:50pm ET

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans will likely face off with Packers' star corner Jaire Alexander in the NFC title game. This is fresh off of being held to one catch by Marshon Lattimore- though his lone reception was a touchdown. Evans and Alexander went toe-to-toe in Week 6, with Alexander following him on 76 percent of the routes, holding him to zero catches, per Pro Football Focus. Evans is talented enough to beat any corner, but this is legitimately a matchup to fear. He should be faded in DFS tournaments this weekend.

From RotoBaller

Stefon Diggs Jan 21 5:43pm ET

Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs (oblique) was limited in practice for a second consecutive day Thursday, Jan. 21.

Fantasy Spin: Diggs began last week the same way before practicing in full Friday and posting an 8-106-1 line on the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round. There's been no indication the stud receiver has had a setback since he first landed on the injury report days before the first playoff game, so he should be expected to perform at his usual elite level against the Kansas City Chiefs even though they were among the best during the regular season in limiting wide receiver production.

From TheHuddle