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When Legends Collide: The Matchups that Will Decide the NFC Championship

By: Andrew Fenichel

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers both rank among the top seven in career passing touchdowns, top 11 in career passing yards, top seven in career passer rating and top five in career interception percentage.

But similar to LeBron and Kobe, they’ve never faced off in the playoffs.

That all changes when the NFC Championship game kicks off this Sunday between Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers.

First, some context for this superstar showdown. Back in Week 6, the Buccaneers hosted the Packers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and absolutely dominated every facet of the game, winning 38-10. Rodgers had his worst game of the season, completing 46% of his passes for just 160 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Brady coasted to an easy win, completing 63% of his passes and throwing two touchdowns.

But we’ll also tell you that A) one game is an incredibly small sample, B) turnovers are mostly luck-based and shouldn’t be over-analyzed and C) that game was three months ago and during the regular season. The playoffs are a whole different animal.

With a trip to Super Bowl LV on the line, keep an eye on the following matchups – they might just be the reason one team punches a ticket to Tampa and the other team is stuck eating pizza and wings at home.

Bucs T Tristian Wirfs vs. Packers DE Za’Darius Smith

It’s well-documented how poorly Brady has performed under pressure in 2020—his 66.2 well thrown percentage (Well Thrown%) under pressure was the sixth worst among all qualified quarterbacks in the NFL, and his 53.8 completion percentage was ninth worst.

Enter Tristian Wirfs.

Wirfs (78) has a key matchup against the Packers’ defensive front this Sunday. (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

Wirfs, the rookie right tackle from Iowa, allowed a 5.3 pressure ratefourth best among all RTs and top 10 among all tackles. He also finished second with a 3.6 hurry allowed percentage and recorded a better-than-average run disruption allowed rate of 9.0—yeah, he’s good in the run game too.

Talk about a dominant rookie season (and people still say that the Offensive Rookie of the Year isn’t just a skill position award).

The Packers primarily play a 3-4 defense with their front seven and drop their secondary into a zone look, meaning that their outside linebackers are the edge rushers. While Za’Darius Smith made his second straight Pro Bowl in 2020 after finishing with a 17.2 pressure rate (PR%), 12.5 sacks and a career-high four forced fumbles, Preston Smith had somewhat of a down year (9.5 PR%—12th lowest among all edge rushers with at least 100 plays) and the productive Rashan Gary has struggled with injuries.

If the Packers are going to force Brady to play into his weaknesses, Za’Darius Smith, who lined up on the left side across from the RT on 46% of snaps in 2020, will need to have a huge day as a pass rusher versus Wirfs.

Rodgers’ Play-Action Game vs. Tampa’s Secondary

Rodgers’s performance versus the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round was a perfect example of his all-time greatness, and why he’s the front-runner for the MVP.

The Rams’ elite secondary, featuring perhaps the NFL’s best cornerback in Jalen Ramsey, held Rodgers’ All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams in check (66 yards and a goal-line TD that was more of a product of a great play call by Matt LaFleur than a great individual play by Adams).

However, Rodgers utilized play-action to burn the Rams defense multiple times, most notably on a 58-yard TD to Allen Lazard. Green Bay was able to hang 32 points on the league’s No. 1 defense despite Adams’ fifth-lowest lowest yards per target in a game this season.

Tampa Bay will try to shut down Rodgers again this weekend, though that’s easier said than done. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Adams fourth-lowest yards per target in a game in 2020? You guessed it, Week 6 versus the Buccaneers. Rodgers also threw two picks when targeting Adams in that game. He was also sacked six times and pressured 21 times as the Packers’ offensive line had its worst game of the season.

Rodgers is eighth among QBs in air yards per attempt on play-action concepts this season (minimum 30 attempts) at 14.3, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of his play-action game has been his ability to limit turnovers. Rodgers hasn’t thrown a single pickable pass on 57 throws in the play-action game in 2020. Literally zero.

Stopping Rodgers’ aerial assault for a second time this season will be a huge task for Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and his team’s secondary. It starts with Carlton Davis, who played 98% of the snaps at cornerback in the divisional round versus the Saints and allowed a 50.0 burn percentage (Burn%) in 2020 to go along with a 63.0 open allowed percentage—both better than average among all CBs.

Tampa’s other corners, Sean Murphy-Bunting (62.2 Burn%) and Jamel Dean (46.9), are both solid, but the real key to stopping the Rodgers play-action game might be rookie free safety Antoine Winfield Jr. His job is to read the field, not bite on the play-fake, and recover to beat the throw to the target.

Winfield Jr. has allowed a 56.7 Burn% in 2020, which is worse than average. And even after somewhat arbitrarily adjusting for the “rookie learning curve” by just looking at the second half of the season, Winfield Jr. has a 71.4 Burn% and a 54.7 big play allowed percentage — even worse than the first half of the season.

Winfield Jr. will need to play like his former Pro-Bowler dad if the Buccaneers don’t want to get burned by that baaad man Aaron Rodgers on Sunday (shoutout to Stephen A. Smith).

 

Data analysis by Greg Gifford and Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads.

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