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Dougherty: Tough to bet against Tom Brady when big money is on the line

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Tom Brady isn’t the nightmare he used to be for NFL defenses, but he still scares NFL coaching staffs when big money is on the line.

And it will be on the line Sunday when Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to Lambeau Field for the NFC championship game.

An assistant coach in the league put it like this when asked if he’d fear Brady this week. “Yes. He is a game manager. Gets the ball out quick.”

The coach didn’t mean game manager in the way it’s often used, as talent-dismissing or a backhanded compliment. He meant that Brady remains formidable because of his superior command of the game and attention to detail even if at age 43 his physical skills have begun to wane from what made him the best quarterback in NFL history.

“He has a lot of say on what’s going on,” the coach said. “He just manages a game so well. He uses a lot of quick game, uses a lot of stuff (early). And then if the offensive line is doing well he starts to extend the routes.”

Brady’s first season away from New England statistically has been his best since 2017 — his 102.2 rating was better than his final two years with the Patriots (97.7 in 2018 and 88.0 in ’19). With receivers Mike Evans (6-feet-5, 231 pounds) and Chris Godwin (4.42-second 40) he has far more receiving talent than he did late in his career with the Patriots, though injured Antonio Brown (knee) being out this week hurts.

Still, playing in a new offense for the first time since Brady was a rookie in 2000 surely has been a bumpy ride. Aaron Rodgers had an OK season in coach Matt LaFleur’s new scheme last year — he led the Packers to 13 wins, but his 94.4 rating was well below his career average (103.9). In Year 2, Rodgers is the NFL’s presumptive MVP.

So Brady likely is a better quarterback after 18 games in coach Bruce Arians' scheme then he was early in the year. This week I asked a longtime NFL scout who has watched a lot of Bucs video this season what he sees in Brady in his new offense.

“Looks good,” the scout said via text. “Same. Accurate. Good arm short and over the middle. The longer the throw the less accurate. Average athlete. Super smart. Struggles with pressure. (They’ve added) some New England/Brady elements to it.”

The last time these teams met, in Week 6, the Bucs won in a blowout (38-10) after two Rodgers’ interceptions handed the Bucs 14 points early in the second quarter — one was a pick-6, the other might as well have been as it was returned to the Packers’ 2.

Brady didn’t have much of a day statistically (104.9 rating but a season-low 166 yards passing), but there’s not much to go on because the Bucs pulled away so early in the third quarter.

It’s also true that the Packers are a different defense than they were then. In that game, Ty Summers played 22 snaps at inside linebacker because of a injuries to Christian Kirksey and Kamal Martin, and Oren Burks played 14. Neither is a part of the defensive rotation now — since the halfway point of the season, they’ve combined for a total of only 22 snaps.

Also, Josh Jackson started at cornerback in place of injured Kevin King, and while he tackled well in the run game he gave up a touchdown pass and set up another score with a pass interference penalty on a deep shot in the end zone.

Even if King can’t play Sunday — he’s listed as questionable on the Packers’ injury report because of a back injury — Jackson presumably would not replace him. Tramon Williams, just signed this week, is the best bet for that.

Ever since a 34-31 loss to Indianapolis in Week 11, the Packers’ defense has gradually improved. Kenny Clark has been a difference maker down the stretch; Barnes alongside the rotating Kirksey and Martin have been an upgrade at inside linebacker; and safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage have played their best football since they were signed and drafted last year.

In the seven games since that loss, the Packers have given up an average of 18.4 points a game, down from 25.8 points in the first 10. No one’s suggesting they’re suddenly dominant, but coordinator Mike Pettine’s group has looked different down the stretch than it did for much of the season.

“(The Packers) are really physical, they’re hitting guys,” said an offensive assistant coach for another NFC team who watched their divisional-round win over the Los Angeles Rams last week. “When guys make plays on them they’re punishing them for making plays. I was impressed.”

Of course, Brady will be the best quarterback the Packers have seen since, well, the last time they played Brady. But this is what you have to beat to win a Super Bowl.

In the Packers’ last loss, to the Colts, they were unable to stop an accomplished veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers, who read their defense and audibled his way to 34 points and 420 yards, the most yards the Packers have allowed all season. Rivers consistently made the right decision on run or pass after eyeing up the Packers’ defense at the line of scrimmage.

Brady is all of that and then some. Pettine likened to a poker game how thorough his players must be in their studies and defensive disguises this week to avoid tipping off calls before the snap.

“You obviously don't want to be the sucker at the table,” Pettine said. “So, if you find yourself early in the game and he's looking at you every play, then you know you're probably holding your cards the wrong way. I just think it's important for our guys to understand the attention to detail, and the urgency, just how important it is against a quarterback like this.”

It’s especially important because pressure is the best way to beat any passer, and especially one as immobile as Brady. He never has been a playmaker outside the pocket, so he needs room inside the pocket to slide around and avoid rushers. A good rush up the middle is the best way to stress him.

Clark is the Packers’ top inside rusher, but this might be a game where Pettine moves Za’Darius Smith or Rashan Gary inside even more than usual. Pettine hasn’t blitzed much this season — according to Sheil Kapadia and Ted Nguyen of The Athletic, his 20.1 percent blitz rate ranked No. 26 in the league — but he might be tempted to send his inside linebackers (Barnes, Kirksey and Martin) more than usual.

No matter the game plan, beating Brady is no small task even if he’s not the passer he used to be. As the saying goes, a lot of people have lost a lot of money betting against Tom Brady.

The Packers’ charge is to not be the sucker at the poker table.

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