Unlike upstart Buccaneers, the Packers are no strangers to the NFC title game
GREEN BAY - Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will mark the Green Bay Packers’ fourth conference championship since 2014. No other team in the NFC has had as many appearances in that span.
Four players on the 2014 active roster who experienced those three games remain: quarterback Aaron Rodgers, wide receiver Davante Adams, center Corey Linsley and kicker Mason Crosby. Alas, none of those three games served as a gateway to the Super Bowl.
“We've had consistent success in the playoffs, but we haven't kinda got over that hump,” Rodgers said. “Obviously, those three (NFC championship games) were on the road, one (2014) was obviously a game we should've won. The other two (2016 and '19) weren't very close.
“I think you learn something from all of them, but each one is so different. Each team is different and each opponent is different. Their strengths. Each of those teams, at least, played way different. Definitely thankful to be back here.”
The Packers will compete Sunday with a chance to play for the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LV. Despite understanding the magnitude of the game, both Rodgers and Adams said that there is no additional pressure in an NFC championship compared to any other game.
“It’s my fourth time being in this game, so it's not going to be as big of a shocker as it will be to some other guys,” Adams said. “But it's really just the same game as it is every other time you get out there. Obviously a heightened awareness and knowing the situation is going to be a little bit different, but it also makes other people play harder.
“But if you give it a hundred percent every time you get out there and that's always your mindset just to be always on 10 every time you get out there like that, then I don't think it'll be too big of a difference for anybody.”
Conversely, the Buccaneers haven’t been to the NFC championship game since 2002, the year they won the Super Bowl. One of the Buccaneers' longest-tenured veterans, inside linebacker Lavonte David, was drafted in the second round by the team in 2012. Leading up to this year, David had never played in a postseason game.
“Through the first eight years of my career, I’ve never been in a situation like this,” David said. “There have been some rough years I’ve been through, but for me to just still be here after all that – it’s just me having a strong mind and a great support system.
“It’s great that we’re here right now, but we’ve just still got a long way to go.”
Wide receiver Mike Evans has also spent his entire career with the Buccaneers since he was taken as the seventh-overall pick in the 2014 draft. The team has improved gradually since Evans’ first season, when the team only won two of its 16 games.
“A lot of guys, we’ve been losing for a long time,” Evans said. “We didn’t take the easy road out – guys didn’t demand trades. I know people’s situations are different, but for guys like me, Lavonte [David], Will Gholston, Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith, Cam Brate and all those other guys who have been here for over four (or) five years – nine years for Lavonte – it means a lot. We’ve been here (and) we saw some bad days. We’re happy to be in the position we are now.”
Technically, quarterback Tom Brady hasn’t been to an NFC championship game either, although he played in 13 AFC title games with the New England Patriots. Because the Buccaneers weren’t in the building on Monday or Tuesday, Brady said that he hasn’t shared much with his teammates on what it takes to prepare for a conference championship game. Regardless, he said his team knows how talented and experienced the Packers are.
"I think everyone understands the significance of these (games),” Brady said. “It’s very difficult to get to this point – to be (the remaining) four of 32 (teams). I think we’re all excited for it, but certainly understand we have a lot of prep to go. We’re going to take every minute up to kickoff to get ready to go.”
After the Packers’ divisional-round victory over the Los Angeles Rams, their active 53-man roster is overwhelmingly healthy.
Everyone on the active roster practiced in some capacity Wednesday, including defensive lineman Kingsley Keke, who had been in concussion protocol following the Packers’ Week 16 game against the Tennessee Titans. Keke was spotted working off to the side last Friday, but Wednesday was his official first day back practicing with the team. He was listed as a limited participant on the injury report.
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Both running back AJ Dillon (quadriceps) and inside linebacker Krys Barnes (thumb), who sustained in-game injuries against the Rams, practiced in a limited capacity. Dillon appeared to be moving around well during individual drills after being injured in the fourth quarter against the Rams.
Barnes fractured his thumb in the first quarter against the Rams and returned to action later in the game with a club cast. Head coach Matt LaFleur said he hopes that Barnes can play with a smaller club this weekend and that Barnes will continue to be evaluated throughout the week.
Kicker Mason Crosby (shoulder), wide receiver Allen Lazard (wrist/back), tight end Marcedes Lewis (knee), outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (thumb), wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (knee/ankle), tackle Rick Wagner (knee) and running back Jamaal Williams (ankle) were also listed as limited participants.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers held a walkthrough Wednesday. Defensive tackle Vita Vea (ankle) participated in his first practice since being designated for return from injured reserve. If the Buccaneers decide that Vea is healthy enough for game action, he could be activated.
“He walked really (well), because that’s all we did today,” Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said. “We had a walkthrough. That was a really physical game last week and it’s that time of year where we don’t need to be beating on each other. We’ll see him move around more tomorrow. I watched him run for the last few weeks to get in shape and he looks good.”
Wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) did not participate in practice. Brown injured his knee in the divisional-round game against the New Orleans Saints and had an MRI on Monday. According to the NFL Network, Brown did not sustain a serious injury. Arians said that Brown will be “day-to-day” leading up to Sunday’s game.
The Packers will have quite a challenge running the ball if the massive Vea comes off injured reserve and plays, but even if he doesn’t the middle of the Buccaneers defense still belongs to Ndamukong Suh.
The Packers know a lot about the 6-4, 307-pound defensive tackle, especially quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who used to face him twice a year when he was in Detroit. Suh was a personal foul waiting to happen for most of his five years in Detroit and a few years in Miami.
And while he drew a roughing-the-passer penalty in the meeting between the two teams in Week 6 – and did his share of trash-talking with Rodgers – he is no longer known more for his dirty play than his presence in the middle of the field.
“He’s gotten a little craftier,” center Corey Linsley said. "There are little nuances of his game that he's improved every year and he's a force on that line as, are a lot of the other guys.
“I think maybe one thing that he brings that maybe other guys in this league don't, that veteran presence that he kind of lifts up everybody around him and it makes everybody on that line play better.“
Easy does it
Even though the Packers had a bye week and came out of their division victory over the Rams relatively healthy, LaFleur said he has no intention of turning up the heat in practice to prepare for the physical Buccaneers.
Throughout the latter part of the season, LaFleur has tried to cut back on the time on the field so that the players’ bodies can stay fresh. Getting the bye after the regular season helped his team immensely and he doesn’t think there’s any reason to push it.
So, he’s sticking with a light practice on Wednesday and a regular schedule the rest of the week.
“I think our guys are pretty comfortable with the routine that we're in right now,” he said. “It's going to be our typical end-of-year-practice schedule where today will be much more above the neck, walkthrough, jog-through-type tempo with some individual mixed in there as well.
“It’s hard to want to deviate too far from what's got us to this point.”