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Packers-Buccaneers: Two Must-Win Matchups

The Green Bay Packers will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a matchup that could weigh heavily in the NFC playoff race. Here are two critical matchups.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will meet in a battle of NFC heavyweights on Sunday. The quarterbacking showdown of Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady will take center stage, but it’s matchups between powerful defenses and short-handed offenses that could determine the winner in a game dripping with playoff ramifications.

Which matchups will decide the winner? Here’s one on each side of the football.

Packers Offense: Receivers vs. Dean and Davis

The Packers ran roughshod over the Chicago Bears on Sunday, with Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon combining for 193 rushing yards. The strong running game meant a lot of explosive runs as well as a bunch of quality third-down opportunities as the Packers controlled the clock and the game.

Presumably, Bucs coach Todd Bowles isn’t going to allow a repeat performance. With defensive tackle Vita Vea and the linebacker tandem of Devin White and Lavonte David, he’s got much better personnel to counteract the dynamic Jones-Dillon duo.

If forced to throw the football, can Packers receivers Allen Lazard and Sammy Watkins get open against the top-notch cornerback duo of Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis before Tampa Bay’s top-ranked pass rush arrives on the scene? Dean, in particular, is a stud. He had two interceptions against the Saints last week. When the Buccaneers routed the Packers in the 2020 regular season, Dean had a game-changing pick-six and Davis broke up four passes.

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“Any time you have Aaron, you’re going to have a formidable offense,” Bowles told reporters in Tampa on Wednesday. “He’s so smart and so sharp and pinpoint, he makes other players better. They’ve got some young receivers with a lot of talent, they’ve got some veterans there. [Randall] Cobb and Sammy, they do a good job, as well. Like us, they’re trying to get in synch, too, and win some games while they do it. Whoever makes the least mistakes will win the game.”

Jamel Dean had a pick-six vs. the Packers in 2020. (Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)

Jamel Dean had a pick-six vs. the Packers in 2020. (Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)

Packers Defense: Gary and Smith vs. Wirfs and TBA

The Buccaneers’ offense is a hot mess. They could be without their three top receivers (Mike Evans, suspension; Chris Godwin, hamstring; Julio Jones, knee), starting left tackle (Donovan Smith, elbow) and backup left tackle (Josh Wells, injured reserve). The Packers might be a work in progress in some areas but it would be impossible to find a better time to earn a key head-to-head victory.

Where the Buccaneers are strong is right tackle. Run or pass, Tristan Wirfs is one of the best in the business. A first-round pick in 2020, he’s allowed three sacks in his career. His primary matchup will be against Rashan Gary, who has lined up on the defense’s left (or against the right tackle) on about 70 percent of the defensive snaps. Of 58 edge defenders with at least 40 pass-rushing opportunities, Gary ranks sixth in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap.

The left tackle could be Brandon Walton, an undrafted free agent in 2020 who played the first 44 offensive snaps of his career last week with Smith inactive and Wells injured. That should be a feeding-frenzy type matchup for Preston Smith, who is first in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity. Walton, however, was quite good against the Saints, with zero pressures allowed.

Brady is a legend, but if the Packers can win on the edges and their defensive backs can win against a makeshift receiver corps, it should be a good day for Joe Barry’s crew.