Bucs-Packers could have huge impact on playoff race

Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers are facing adversity. The team who handles theirs better on Sunday will win a critical game.

A critical, non-divisional game in Week 3? Insanity. Until it’s not.

For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers, they have such an occasion on Sunday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium. Both are Super Bowl hopefuls. Both are expected to win their divisions and therefore both are in the mix for a top seed in the NFC.

In each of the past two seasons, the Packers have won that race. They’ve done little with the advantage, however, last year being beaten by the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional round. The year prior, it was Tom Brady and the Bucs who stormed into Lambeau Field and cut down Aaron Rodgers, one game short of the Super Bowl.

Still, who doesn’t want home-field advantage?

For the Packers and Buccaneers, they are chief threats to each other in this regard. The winner on Sunday will own a key tiebreaker. If Green Bay loses, it must outplay Tampa by three games the remainder of the season. If the Packers win, it’s an even-up race the rest of the way.

Of course, the focus will be on Brady and Rodgers. In reality, it should be on the men around them.

Tampa Bay is dealing with a crush of offensive injuries threatening to make life impossible for its 45-year-old quarterback. The Buccaneers are already without guard Aaron Stinnie and center Ryan Jensen for the season. For this week, Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans is suspended. In the same room, Chris Godwin (hamstring) and Julio Jones (knee) are uncertain to play. As for the running backs, Leonard Fournette is also on the injury report, while Giovani Bernard was placed on Injured Reserve earlier this week.

Meanwhile, the Packers have their own problems. Left tackle David Bakhtiari is a question mark, and has been for some time. Bakhtiari tore his ACL on New Year’s Eve in 2020, and has played a single half of football since. Green Bay is also looking at possible absences for receivers Sammy Watkins (hamstring), Christian Watson (hamstring) and Allen Lazard (ankle). It’s a mess for a team trying to find its offensive way after trading All-Pro receiver Davante Adams this offseason.

Luckily, both teams field excellent defenses. The Buccaneers have allowed only one touchdown all season, and that came last week in garbage time against the New Orleans Saints. It’s a group led by an awesome front seven, including edge rusher Shaq Barrett, defensive tackle Vita Vea, and linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David.

In Green Bay, the Packers weren’t impressive in a Week 1 loss to the Minnesota Vikings before bouncing back to handle the Chicago Bears. The defense boasts seven first-round picks including a pair of rookies in defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt and linebacker Quay Walker, both out of Georgia.

On Sunday, the defenses have the upper hand despite two first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks being present. Who wins will largely be determined by which defense can create more pressure without worrying about doubling receivers and playing two deep safeties at all times, as one normally would against Brady and Rodgers.

And while the victory may not be pretty — regardless who earns it — could have beautiful implications come January.

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