NFC Championship Preview 2021
What is the greatest quarterback matchup in conference championship history?
A simple way to look at that question is to search for games where each team was quarterbacked by a past (or future) MVP of the league. That hasn't happened very often, only 13 times in 100 conference championship games since the merger. Tom Brady has played in five of those games -- four against Peyton Manning, one against Patrick Mahomes. Only one other pairing has occurred more than once: Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers faced Kenny Stabler and the Raiders three times in the 1970s.
Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Green Bay Packers will be the 14th such meeting. Brady is a three-time MVP, taking home the hardware in 2007, 2010, and 2017. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers has two MVP trophies, and is the favorite to win this year's award as well. Brady and Rodgers will be just the second pair of quarterbacks with multiple MVP awards to meet in the conference championship round, joining Brady and Manning, who has five MVP awards. (Brady and Mahomes will also qualify for that list when Mahomes wins his second MVP award, which seems inevitable to happen sooner or later).
Between the two of them, Brady and Rodgers have won seven Super Bowls and five MVP awards (and counting), and they have led the league in passing DYAR five times and DVOA six times. With resumes like that, it's tempting to think that whichever great quarterback is at his greatest on Sunday will win, but that would not be fair to the 94 other active players on gameday, nor to their coaching staffs. The winning team may be the one that better helps its quarterback, not the one who leans on him the most.
The Buccaneers were consistent performers this season except in two games. I spent nearly 2,500 words last week explaining why I doubted their 38-3 loss to the Saints in Week 9 foreshadowed a similar result in the divisional round rematch. And it would be on brand for me to do the same for their 38-10 drubbing of the Packers from Week 6. The Bucs erased a 10-0 deficit that week with a pair of second-quarter interceptions. The first followed a poor Rodgers decision to throw to the left sideline off his back foot, and the second followed a deflection of a failed Davante Adams catch in the middle of the field. Neither of those things is likely to happen again this Sunday. But that apparent momentum swing distracts from a broader truth that the Bucs dominated that game at the line of scrimmage and have the right personnel advantages to do so again this weekend. Packers head coach Matt LaFleur supported Rodgers' late-30s renaissance with schematic improvements, but he'll need all of his creativity to beat a team where the stars play in the best positions to disrupt his typical game plan.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
Tampa Bay at Green Bay
|DVOA||31.5% (2)||25.9% (3)|
|WEI DVOA||35.5% (3)||36.2% (2)|
|Buccaneers on Offense|
|TB OFF||GB DEF|
|DVOA||19.8% (3)||0.5% (17)|
|WEI DVOA||27.2% (2)||-4.1% (14)|
|PASS||37.1% (5)||5.1% (15)|
|RUSH||-2.0% (10)||-5.7% (18)|
|Packers on Offense|
|TB DEF||GB OFF|
|DVOA||-14.6% (5)||29.1% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||-11.8% (6)||35.3% (1)|
|PASS||-5.4% (5)||52.0% (1)|
|RUSH||-31.4% (1)||3.0% (5)|
|DVOA||-2.9% (26)||-2.7% (25)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Tom Brady seemed like a square peg for the round hole of head coach Bruce Arians' offensive philosophy, which aims to aggressively stretch the field. It isn't an arm strength thing -- it's a pressure thing. Since he turned 40 years old, Brady has seen the differential in his passing DVOA rates with and without pressure balloon from the second-smallest in 2017 to the fourth-biggest this season. Typically, quarterbacks avoid pressure by making quick decisions and shorter throws. Brady skewed that way in his career and became the best to ever play his position. Maybe an old quarterback can learn new tricks, but Arians' preferred trick seemed to invite the types of plays on which Brady had performed the worst in recent seasons and, worse, subject Brady to the hits that even a 43-year-old health and wellness guru would rather avoid.
It probably should not have surprised anyone that Brady made what seemed impossible possible. Other quarterbacks have to hold the ball to throw deep. Brady led the league with a 9.1-yard average depth of target (aDOT) because he crashed through the apparent ceiling of air yards on quick throws. Brady's 8.7-yard aDOT on the throws he released in less than 3.5 seconds was a positive outlier -- just four other quarterbacks of the 36 that threw 200 or more pass attempts even reached 8.0 average depth of target on quick throws. Brady held the ball for 3.5 or more seconds on just 8.0% of his dropbacks, the 13th-lowest rate of those qualified passers.
|Highest aDOT on Passes
Thrown in Less than 3.5 Seconds, 2020
|Throw time charting from Sportradar
Minimum 200 pass attempts
Pressure may be the best way to limit Brady's success, but it only reaches him if it comes quickly. That likely explains the discrepancy in the Bucs' 17th-ranked pass block win rate (from ESPN Stats and Info) and second-best offensive pressure rate. And it may even explain why the Bucs suffered surprising defeats against the underdog Bears and Rams. The Bears held the Bucs to 19 points, and their pressure rate ranking this season improved from 15th-best on dropbacks of 3.5 or more seconds to 13th best on dropbacks of less than 3.5 seconds. The Rams held the Bucs to 24 points, and their pressure rate ranking improved from second-worst on dropbacks of 3.5 or more seconds to seventh-best on dropbacks of less than 3.5 seconds. Aaron Donald generated his pressures on dropbacks that averaged 2.59 seconds, third-fastest of the 92 defenders with 15 or more pressures. He is the model player to disrupt Brady with interior pressure, especially now that right guard Alex Cappa fractured his ankle and shifted the weak link in the Bucs pass protection from its normal home in left tackle Donovan Smith to the inside. Brady can climb the pocket to avoid an outside rush, but he does not have the mobility to bootleg or escape horizontally the way many of the game's best young passers do.
The Packers don't have a player like Donald. They have a star pass-rusher in Za'Darius Smith, who led the team with 30 pressures and 12.5 sacks, but he tends to line up off of the line of scrimmage even when he's roaming. And since Preston Smith saw his pressure rate crater from 4.0% last year to 1.4% this year, and since Rashan Gary fell short of a breakout in his sophomore season, the Packers landed in the bottom 10 in overall pressure rate and ranked worse in pressure rate on dropbacks of less than 3.5 seconds (sixth-worst) than in pressure rate on longer dropbacks (eighth-worst).
The Packers could try to blitz. Given Brady's sensitivity to quick pressure, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that the Bucs declined from a 41.8% passing DVOA and 8.1 yards per play on dropbacks with four pass-rushers to a -4.0% passing DVOA and 5.6 yards per play on dropbacks with five or more rushers, but the Packers enjoyed minimal gains on their blitzes, increasing their pressure rate from 19.2% on four-man rushes to just 20.8%. They tended to avoid blitzes -- their 25.0% blitz percentage ranked 23rd in the NFL -- and rely on the strength of their secondary to defense passes and maintain tight coverage in nickel and dime formations to help their pass rush win late.
Like with Za'Darius Smith in their front, the Packers have a star in their secondary in cornerback Jaire Alexander. Alexander can make a compelling case that he became the best cover corner in football in his third season. He finished top-two among qualified corners with 4.4 yards allowed per target and a 65.2% coverage success rate. And he enjoyed that success while trailing many of the game's best receivers.
One of those receivers was the Bucs' Mike Evans, who managed just one catch and 10 yards with Alexander as a frequent assignment in man coverage in what was otherwise a 38-10 drubbing in Week 6. That lockdown coverage would sabotage many teams' passing games, but the Bucs are unusually equipped to survive it with standout secondary options such as Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Rob Gronkowski. Alexander played a big part in Green Bay's 10th-place ranking in DVOA rate allowed to No. 1 receivers, but the Packers were a bottom-10 team in defending No. 2 receivers and running backs as receivers, weaknesses that Brady exploited in Week 6, with seven of his 17 completions going to Godwin and Ronald Jones before the Bucs built a big enough lead to run to kill clock. The Bucs didn't even have Brown that week. Their newest star should intensify the pressure on the Packers' lesser cornerbacks assuming his seemingly minor knee injury won't prevent him from playing on Sunday.
Since the Packers lack the defensive strengths to target the Bucs' offensive shortcomings, they will have to hope that the conditions in Green Bay will slow Brady for them. Lambeau Field may not have its full capacity of fans, but it will have temperatures around freezing Sunday afternoon and may have snow flurries. That likely would have been the story had Drew Brees and the Saints won last weekend, but despite his advanced age and apt "retired to Florida" jokes, Brady has yet to show any sensitivity to cold weather. Since 2009, he has nearly identical rates of pass attempts per game and passing efficiencies in sub-freezing temperatures and in warm weather.
|Tom Brady's Passing Splits by Temperature, 2009-Present|
|32° to 49°||58||36.9||7.4||5.2%||1.4%|
Brady has played four sub-freezing games since he turned 40. His Patriots won all four of them, three by double digits. And Brady threw for at least 330 yards in the three that were playoff games, most recently in January of 2019 in Patrick Mahomes' only ever postseason loss. Maybe the warm Florida weather has seeped into the once-hardened former New Englander's bones, but Brady hasn't shown any statistical trends that support that theory.
Of course, if the Bucs opt to rely more heavily on their running game -- in response to the cold and possibly snowy weather or otherwise -- it's hard to argue that benefits the Packers. Tampa Bay enjoyed a marked advantage with the ninth-ranked offensive line in adjusted line yards while Green Bay finished 10th-worst in adjusted line yards on defense. Ronald Jones got to enjoy the statistical fanfare with 23 carries, 113 yards, and two touchdowns in Week 6, but his blockers enabled him to do so by controlling of the line of scrimmage. That seems likely to continue this weekend with the Bucs' increasing reliance on 12 personnel of late and two capable tight end blockers in Gronkowski and Cameron Brate. That is a nightmare formation for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's preferred dime defenses, and with their personnel, the Packers do not have an obvious way to play against their normal tendencies.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
The Packers' easiest path to victory may be to outscore rather than limit Brady's offense. Broadly speaking, that seems very possible. The Packers have the only offense better than the Bucs' in weighted DVOA. And Aaron Rodgers' ill-advised back-foot and Davante Adams' dropped-pass deflection interceptions that erased the Packers' 10-0 Week 6 lead seem unlikely to repeat themselves this Sunday. That said, the Packers suffer as many offensive mismatches as they do defensive ones, and those may require a different game plan than the one Matt LaFleur tried three months ago.
Weirdly, that plan starts in the running game rather than with Rodgers. LaFleur made an all-time great in Rodgers even better with scheme improvements, most notably in a two-year jump in play-action reliance and efficiency. In Mike McCarthy's last year in Green Bay in 2018, the Packers were bottom-six with both their 20% play-action rate and -0.4-yard differential on play-action versus traditional pass plays. This year, the Packers were seventh with a 31% play-action rate. And while their +0.6-yard differential remained in the bottom 10, it represented a full yard improvement at LaFleur's direction and seems particularly important against a Bucs defense that finished 27th in yards per attempt differential on play-action versus traditional pass plays this season.
Football Outsiders' research has shown that teams do not need to run the ball frequently or effectively to enjoy success in play-action. However, teams need to land in offense-favoring downs and distances for defenses to take run feints seriously. That was a major problem for the Packers in Week 6. They fell short of the yardage standard for success on all seven of their second-down rushing attempts, landing the team on third down with between 3 and 7 yards to gain each time. Rodgers had little choice but to take those seven snaps in shotgun, and he threw an interception, took two sacks, and threw three incomplete passes to kill six of those seven drives.
Some of that second-down clustering was likely random, but I think much of it followed a conscious LaFleur decision to call run plays aimed toward the sidelines. Typically, Aaron Jones excels in space, but Devin White and Lavonte David are the fastest pair of inside linebackers in football and spurred the team's fourth-lowest avoided tackle rate by Sportradar charting. Even condensed near the line of scrimmage to counter the Packers' many bunched offensive formations, White and David consistently beat Jones to the perimeter and brought him to the ground. And that crowding near the line helped the Bucs get home with several blitzes, which Rodgers typically beats with 8.4 yards per attempt versus his 8.1-yard average on four-man rushes.
LaFleur has a compelling alternative. He likely drafted AJ Dillon with the seasons after 2020 in mind, but in limited opportunities this year, the 6-foot-0 and 247-pound Dillon lived up to his Derrick Henry comparisons with 3.20 yards after contact per attempt, second-best among running backs with as many or more attempts. Dillon might push the undersized White (237 pounds) and David (233) for extra yards after contact in more of a north-south running game. And while he can't stretch the field horizontally the way Jones and Jamaal Williams can, the Bucs eliminate that possibility anyway with 1.96 average yards allowed before contact, the lowest in football.
LaFleur seems willing to involve his inexperienced rookie runner despite the setting. Dillon took more carries in last week's team playoff debut (six) than he had in any of the first 15 weeks of the season. However, he may not have that luxury if Dillon is compromised by the quad injury that limited his practice on Wednesday. And LaFleur has an injury concern of another kind in defensive tackle Vita Vea's activation from injured reserve and possible return to the Bucs lineup. Vea is massive at 347 pounds. The Bucs survived his three-month absence and even maintained the No. 1 DVOA run defense without him, but his presence would likely offer the Bucs the luxury of pressure and run-stopping in lighter fronts and could be the team's key to repeat their Week 6 dominance at the line of scrimmage.
Thanks to his February 2008 Super Bowl loss to an underdog Giants team, Brady has the reputation of a quarterback you beat with four-man pressure, but as Rodgers has entered his late 30s, that has increasingly become his undoing as well. This year, Rodgers declined to an anemic 3.3 yards per attempt on his passes with non-blitz pressure. And his 5.3-yard differential from his attempts with blitzes or no pressure was the highest in football.
|Aaron Rodgers YPA Differentials|
|Blitz and pressure charting from Sportradar|
Their blitzing forced Rodgers' lead-changing interceptions, but the Bucs exceled in Week 6 with a 28.6% pressure rate on four-man pass-rushes too. That was the second-highest non-blitz pressure rate Rodgers faced all season. The Bucs sacked Rodgers four times, and the Panthers sacked him five times in Week 15 when they brought his highest non-blitz pressure rate of the season (29.2%). Rodgers took two or fewer sacks in his other 16 games.
LaFleur can likely sabotage the Bucs' blitzing with spread formations, a north-south running game, and play-action passing, but he won't be able to scheme his receivers open if the Bucs can bring pressure with seven defenders dropped into coverage. They did that in Week 6 without Vea and when the Packers still had David Bakhtiari, their All-Pro left tackle who paced their line with an exceptional 0.9% blown pass block rate. The opposite will be true this Sunday.
With their explosive offense, the Packers have relied less on their special teams than most teams. Kicker Mason Crosby attempted just 16 field goals, and punter JK Scott booted just 46 punts. If the Bucs continue their Week 6 defensive success, both special teamers may work some overtime this weekend. And if the latter does, it will put a spotlight on the Packers' poor punt coverage team that has the greatest hand in the team's No. 25-ranked DVOA special teams.
The good news for the Packers is that the Bucs are no better. They are ranked 26th in special teams DVOA, although they reached the bottom third of teams a bit differently. Like the Packers, the Bucs finished below average in kickoff, kickoff return, punt, and punt return value, but they were closer to average in the latter three and bridged that gap with below-average kicking. Ryan Succop did not miss a field goal inside of 40 yards and may not attempt one on Sunday with the forecasted weather conditions, but he missed five extra-point attempts, the third-most in football.
If Matt LaFleur and Bruce Arians had the same rosters to work with, then I'd trust LaFleur to find advantages with his creativity and schematic innovation, but they don't have the same rosters. The Bucs beat the Packers up at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in Week 6, and nothing has changed with their personnel since then that would make me believe that the rematch would be any different. I expect the Bucs to win and for Brady to reach his 10th Super Bowl.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that the defensive chart is reversed so upwards is a more negative defensive DVOA (which is better).