Packers hoping homefield is to their advantage this year

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers pitches to running back Aaron Jones during the first half of a Jan. 2 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. The Packers have a bye through the first-round of the postseason and will be playing at Lambeau Field throughout the NFC playoffs.

The Green Bay Packers are the only NFL team that didn’t lose a game at home in the 2021 season. They’re counting on their frenzied fanbase and frigid climes to help them get to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years.

“I’m really looking forward to having a full crowd, that good old Green Bay weather,” Aaron Rodgers said after the Packers’ 13-4 finish gave them the top seed in the NFC for the second straight year. “It’s been an advantage for us for a long time. I think it’s an advantage having 78,000 instead of 7,800 like we did last year.”

Actually, only 7,772 fans attended last year’s conference championship because of COVID-19 restrictions when Tom Brady led Tampa Bay to a 31-26 win at Lambeau Field. Brady and the Buccaneers went on to beat Kansas City in the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay’s first title since 2003 and Brady’s record seventh championship to go with the half dozen he won in New England.

This time, the Packers can have full capacity — 81,441 — at their games beginning with the divisional round.

Wild-card weekend pits the Eagles at the Buccaneers and 49ers at the Cowboys on Sunday and the Cardinals at the Rams on Monday night.

1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (13-4) — AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 1. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 45, 31-25 over Steelers on Feb. 6, 2011, at Arlington, Texas. Last year: No. 1 seed, beat Rams, 32-18, in divisional round, lost to Buccaneers, 31-26, in NFC championship. Eleventh trip to playoffs in Rodgers’ 14 seasons as starting QB. Third consecutive NFC North title under Matt LaFleur.

Why they’ll prevail: The Packers can get to the Super Bowl without ever leaving Lambeau Field. Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers has thrown 20 TD passes without an interception over his past seven games, and he says the fractured pinky toe that bothered him the second half of the season is starting to feel better. The Packers are getting healthier just in time for the playoffs after struggling through injuries throughout 2021. The O-line got star LT David Bakhtiari and C Josh Myers back for the regular-season finale. CB Jaire Alexander and OLB Za’Darius Smith are expected to be back for the playoffs.

2. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (13-4) — AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 2. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 55, 31-9 over the Chiefs on Feb. 7, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. Last year: No. 5 seed, beat Washington, 31-23, in wild-card round, beat Saints, 30-20, in divisional round, beat Packers, 31-26, in NFC championship. Won first NFC South title since 2007.

Why they’ll prevail: The defending champs haven’t been as dominant as some people envisioned when the team defied the odds by returning every starter from last season, but it hasn’t been because of Tom Brady and a potent offense that averaged 406 yards and 30.1 points. The Bucs set a franchise record for regular-season victories and won their first NFC South title in 14 years. At age 44, and in his 22nd season, Brady has had one of his best years, leading the league in completions (a single-season record 485), attempts (719), passing yards (5,136) and TD passes (43). He’s just the third QB in the past 30 years to lead the league in all four categories.

3. DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5) — AP Pro32 Ranking No. 5. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 30, beat Steelers, 27-17, on Jan. 28, 1996 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. Last year: 6-10, missed playoffs. First NFC East title and first playoff appearance since 2018.

Why they’ll prevail: QB Dak Prescott and the league’s No. 1 offense have plenty of options to send the Cowboys deeper in the playoffs than they’ve been in 26 years. While their numbers aren’t staggering, WRs Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb can take over games. Cedrick Wilson can be a dangerous option with Michael Gallup sidelined by a knee injury. Star RB Ezekiel Elliott has battled a knee injury most of the year, but looks to be getting healthy at the right time.

4. LOS ANGELES RAMS (12-5) — AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 6. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 34, St. Louis beat Titans, 23-16, on Jan. 30, 2000, at Atlanta. Last year: 10-6, No. 6 seed, beat Seahawks, 30-20, in wild-card round, lost to Packers, 32-18, in divisional round. First NFC West title since 2018. Second straight trip to playoffs.

Why they’ll prevail: The Rams’ offense is good and getting better, with WR Cooper Kupp’s historic season and QB Matthew Stafford’s big-play ability pushing Los Angeles to five wins in six games down the stretch. Their passing game ranks fifth in the NFL with 273.1 yards per game. After two years of stagnation, L.A. is scoring points in bunches while controlling the ball with a balanced approach. The Rams seem capable of outscoring just about any opponent that has defensive flaws to exploit, particularly with a revitalized rushing attack led by Sony Michel and Cam Akers.

5. ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-6) — AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 9. No Lombardis. The Cardinals lost Super Bowl 43 to the Steelers, 27-23, on Feb. 1, 2009, at Tampa. Last year: 8-8, missed playoffs. First playoff appearance since 2015.

Why they’ll prevail: The best news for the Cardinals is that they’re going on the road. Arizona had a remarkable 8-1 record away from home this season, including a win over the Rams in Week 4. Arizona is a team that doesn’t have a ton of holes when it’s playing well and QB Kyler Murray has been one of the best in the league, completing nearly 70% of his passes. The Cardinals could also get a huge boost if three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt is able to return from a shoulder injury.

6. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (10-7) — AP Pro32 Ranking No. 10. Five Lombardis but none since Super Bowl 29, when they beat the Chargers, 49-26, on Jan. 29, 1995. Last year: 6-10, missed playoffs after losing Super Bowl 54 to Chiefs, 31-20.

Why they’ll prevail: The Niners offense is loaded with playmakers who can make big plays out of seemingly nothing. Deebo Samuel had 1,770 yards from scrimmage and 14 TDs as a receiver and a running back, George Kittle is one of the top tight ends at getting yards after the catch and rookie RB Elijah Mitchell averaged 100 yards from scrimmage per game. Throw in improving WR Brandon Aiyuk and versatile FB Kyle Juszczyk and coach Kyle Shanahan has numerous options for his creative playbook.

7. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (9-8) — AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 13. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 52, beat Patriots, 41-33, at Minneapolis for first title in three tries. Last year: 4-11-1, missed playoffs. Fourth playoff appearance in five years.

Why they’ll prevail: Dual-threat QB Jalen Hurts leads the league’s best rushing offense, but also has talented playmakers in WR DeVonta Smith and TE Dallas Goedert. Running the ball effectively with Hurts and a stable of productive backs, including Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenny Gainwell, could keep Tom Brady and Tampa’s high-powered offense on the sideline. The Bucs can’t score as much if the Eagles control the clock and keep Brady off the field.

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