Four Days Until Kickoff: Four Strength vs. Strength Battles

One of the big keys will be play-action passing, where Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have been nearly unstoppable.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will feature a quarterbacking matchup for the ages. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is the presumptive MVP. Tom Brady is the owner of six Super Bowl rings and is the NFL’s career leader in touchdown passes.

Here are four strength vs. strength matchups that will loom large with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

1. 12s at QB

Of course, it starts with the legendary quarterbacks. Rodgers led the NFL with 48 touchdown passes. Brady was next with 40. Brady, who will start his 14th conference championship game, is the NFL’s postseason leader in starts (43), wins (32), passing yards (11,968) and touchdown passes (77). Joe Montana is a distant second with 45 touchdown passes and Rodgers is fourth with 40.

“Obviously, Tommy’s had an amazing career,” Rodgers said on Wednesday. “His legacy is one of so many wins and so many accomplishments. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and enjoyed the few times we’ve gotten to play. I remember when I heard the news about him coming to the NFC. I thought this was a real possibility, and I’m excited about the opportunity to play against him one more time.”

They will be facing quality pass defenses. Over the last three games, Green Bay is third with 5.3 yards allowed per passing attempt. On the road, Tampa Bay is third with 5.6 yards allowed per attempt. Their long-ball prowess will be worth watching, as well.

2. Play-Action Passing

Both offenses are built on solid running games that make life easier for the quarterbacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers was No. 1 in the league with a 138.1 passer rating on play action with a league-high 21 touchdowns vs. zero interceptions. Brady was third with a 124.4 rating and second with 10.2 yards per attempt.

“It starts with stopping the run. Once you shut down the run, it’s a little bit easier to get to the play-action,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “Now, they’re really, really good at it and Matt [LaFleur] has a great system. Aaron has mastered it and it will probably be one of our biggest challenges to handle their play-action game.”

3. Aaron Jones vs. Bucs’ Run Defense

Packers running back Aaron Jones ranked third in the NFL with 5.5 yards per carry on his way to a career-high 1,104 rushing yards. He went nowhere against Tampa Bay, though, in Week 6. He carried 10 times for 15 yards, his 1.5-yard average being a full 2.0 yards worse than any other game this season. It was his only game without a 10-yard run.

That game wasn’t a fluke for Tampa Bay. It allowed a league-low 3.60 yards per carry and 80.6 yards per game.

“They’re very talented across the board,” Packers line coach Adam Stenavich said. “There’s not one guy that’s head and shoulders above the other ones, but they’re all really good. Every O-lineman across the board has to be on their game because every guy’s very talented. Their linebackers do an excellent job, 54 (Lavonte David) and 45 (Devin White) do an excellent job pressuring. Any time you get a linebacker pressuring the way they do, that creates a lot of problems.”

4. Pass Rush vs. Brady

Thanks to a strong offensive line and his own wealth of experience, Brady was sacked on 3.5 percent of dropbacks – the second-lowest rate in the NFL.

Green Bay’s defense cranked up the pressure down the stretch. According to Zebra Sports, which powers the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Packers’ pass rush generated its highest team pressure rate (48.4 percent) in a game this season. The pressure package was led by edge rushers Za'Darius Smith and Rashan Gary, who had seven pressures apiece. The 48.4 percent pressure rate was the highest allowed by the Rams under Sean McVay.

“This is a very challenging defense,” Brady said. “They have a lot of different fronts, a lot of coverages [and] they do a really great job defensively of making you earn everything. They’re very well coached, have a great scheme and everyone’s going to be challenged. It’s going to be a big test for all of us.”