All eyes on QBs as Packers host Bucs for NFC championship

In spite of all that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have done in their storied…

In spite of all that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have done in their storied and accomplished NFL careers, the two quarterbacks have rarely faced off on the field.

Never have they met with so much at stake.

When Rodgers’ top-seeded Green Bay Packers (14-3) host Brady’s fifth-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) in the NFC championship game Sunday, it will be just the fourth time they’ve squared off as starters, and the first time in the playoffs.

“I remember when I heard the news about him coming to the NFC, I thought this was a real possibility,” Rodgers said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to play against him one more time.”

The 3 p.m. game will be televised by Fox.

The Bucs trounced the visiting Packers 38-10 on Oct. 18. They met two other times during Brady’s long tenure in New England, with the Packers winning 26-21 at home in 2014 and the Patriots winning 31-17 at home four years later.

Brady and Rodgers both know all eyes will be on them in this rematch, something all NFL quarterbacks — and particularly those who get the chance at title opportunities — understand.

“When I played, I always knew who was on the other sideline,” said NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner, who appeared in three Super Bowls during a career that led to him being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017. “I always said when I went into these matchups, at the end of the day, I know if we’re going to win this game, I’ve got to outperform that guy. I’ve got to be better than the quarterback on the other side.”

Brady, 43, has helped the Bucs earn a franchise-record seven straight road wins dating to the regular season, and an eighth would take them back home to Florida and make them the first team in league history to play a Super Bowl in its own stadium. A victory at Lambeau Field would clinch Tampa Bay’s first Super Bowl berth since the 2002 season, when the franchise that debuted in 1976 won its only NFL title in its first trip to the big game.

“This is one of the coolest stadiums in the league to play in,” Brady said. “I know they’re excited, we’ll be excited, and it will make for a great football game.”

Brady won six Super Bowls and played in nine total with the Patriots. After spending his first 20 NFL seasons in New England, he signed with the Bucs in March, and now he has a chance to become the fourth quarterback to lead two franchises to a Super Bowl, joining Warner (St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals), Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos) and Craig Morton (Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos).

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AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, right, embraces wide receiver Chris Godwin before the team’s playoff game against the host New Orleans Saints last Sunday.

Green Bay is making its fourth NFC championship game appearance in seven seasons, but Rodgers hasn’t reached a Super Bowl since leading the Packers to the 2010 season’s title. Warner said the postseason weighs heavily on where players stack up in history.

“That’s why Tom is the GOAT (greatest of all time),” Warner said. “It’s why Joe Montana is up there and guys who’ve been there numerous times — the John Elways — and everyone else kind of gets knocked down a notch. Even though they’re been great in the regular season, there’s a combination of the two that I think weighs heavily.”

Simply put, where legacies are concerned, Rodgers needs this victory more than Brady.

“He plays in one Super Bowl, I think there will be something about that that just doesn’t sit right with anybody,” said Warner, who went 1-2 in his Super Bowl appearances (one of those losses was Brady’s first title win) but was MVP of the Rams’ victory over the Tennessee Titans to cap the 1999 season. “It doesn’t sit right with any of us who love this game and know how great he’s been. It just doesn’t seem to fit.”

This may be the best remaining chance for the 37-year-old Rodgers at that elusive second Super Bowl berth.

“It’s been a while since he was last a world champion,” said CBS Sports analyst Rich Gannon, who was MVP of the 2002 NFL season as quarterback of the Oakland Raiders. “I think that would certainly cement his legacy as one of the greatest to ever play the game in my opinion. Not that he needs it, but I’m just telling you that’s probably how he’s wired.”

While quarterbacks fill much of the spotlight in the sport and particularly in the playoffs, success is shared within the team, and the wait for a return to relevance was a long one for the Bucs, who ended a 12-year playoff drought this season. The journey to the NFC title game has been especially gratifying for ninth-year linebacker Lavonte David, eighth-year defensive lineman William Gholston and seventh-year receiver Mike Evans. They’ve spent their entire professional careers with the Bucs.

“It just goes to show throughout the hard times, the people upstairs and around the building believed in me,” David said. “Obviously I believed in them as well. It’s just an honor to still be here, to still be able to live out my dream as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.”

A demonstration of how little postseason success the Bucs have enjoyed: It will take beating the Packers and winning Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7 to move Tampa Bay’s all-time postseason record above .500; two more wins would push the mark to 10-9.

The Bucs will be heading home after facing the Packers no matter the outcome, but they’d prefer to do so with more practices remaining this season — and as far as Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians is concerned, that means avoiding looking ahead to a potential Super Bowl.

“We don’t play that game this week. That’s the message to everybody,” Arians said. “We play the Packers in the NFC championship game. If you start thinking about the Super Bowl, you get beat and (will) be packing your bags on Monday.”