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The Packers are deserving favorites in the NFC Championship Game

Despite an early season blowout, Green Bay is appropriately favored by Vegas.

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

Bad memories exist from the early season clash between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After jumping out to a 10-0 lead in week six, the Packers imploded and the Bucs trounced them. The collapse occurred so quickly that Green Bay went from an 83% win probability with 12:50 left in the second quarter to Tampa Bay reaching 90% by halftime. The loss sparked all sorts of discussion on whether Green Bay’s offense was merely a product of facing bad defenses. Was Aaron Rodgers really fixed? Were the Packers actual contenders?

Months on, that discourse looks ridiculous. Even before the Tampa debacle, Green Bay’s offense churned through a Saints defense that would finish the season second in DVOA. Green Bay answered those questions later in the season by moving the ball effectively against Indianapolis and Chicago, other top defensive units. This past weekend they ripped through the top ranked defense by EPA/play in Los Angeles, scoring almost at will.

Tampa Bay spent the time after the big win going through fits and starts. They waxed Las Vegas and Carolina in the following month, but those sandwiched a narrow victory over the Giants and a 38-3 drudging at the hands of the Saints. The Bucs finished the season strong with multi-score wins over the Vikings, Lions, and Falcons in the final four weeks before getting an eight point win over Washington and a ten point win over the Saints in the past two weeks.

While Tampa Bay fluctuated a bit after the loss, Green Bay soared. They are quite likely an MVS fumble in OT away from a ten game winning streak, and they took the conference’s top seed. This isn’t to say that Tampa Bay has been struggling. Far from it. The Bucs have probably been the NFC’s second best team down the stretch, but they are quite a ways behind Green Bay, who has been the NFL’s best team in the second half.

Tampa Bay’s offense flourished as it destroyed some porous defenses late in the season in big wins over Detroit and Atlanta, but the defense that was so vaunted early on came back down to earth.

To the #nerds out there, this isn’t surprising. Defense is very volatile and is more of a product of who you have played than your own talent level. Just look at how the Packers waltzed through the Rams defense like they were hardly there last weekend.

In the rbsdm team tiers, offense is weighted 1.5x as much as defense because this approximates the stability of offensive performance over time. Taking this into account, Green Bay’s weighted total EPA/play this season is .318, while Tampa Bay’s is .268. Doing this type of weighting with DVOA sees Tampa Bay as a slight favorite at 44.3% versus the Packers’ 38.7%.

Tampa’s defense in the second half hasn’t been as good as it was early on, but this game is probably going to come down to one matchup: Tampa’s pass rush versus Green Bay’s pass protection. Tampa Bay ranks 5th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate, but Green Bay’s offensive line has been spending this season playing on a lower difficulty level, ranking first in pass block win rate. There were only two games this year where Rodgers was sacked more than twice: against Tampa Bay and against Carolina. In comparison, he has not been sacked even once in five other games. If Green Bay can keep Rodgers relatively clean, there’s no reason that the offense shouldn’t be able to carve through Tampa’s defense like it did to a far superior one in Los Angeles.

On the defensive side for Green Bay, there are two key differences. (Note: remember that for DVOA and EPA, negative numbers always favor defenses, so a lower result is preferable.) One, the entire unit as a whole has played much better in the second half of the season. Some of this is due to competition, but the defense’s weighted DVOA of -3.5% outpaces their season rate of +0.5%. After six weeks, the Packers defense ranked 25th in EPA/play at +0.128. From week 7 on, they’ve been the eighth best defense in football at -0.013 EPA/play. This improvement is multi-faceted. Darnell Savage going from a real negative to one of the better safeties in football is a big part of it. Preston Smith has gone from a massive negative into just a forgettable player. Rashan Gary has come into his own as a complementary pass rusher.

There is also the story of “the meeting” between some leaders on the defense and Mike Pettine. Prior to their week 13 game against Philadelphia, some members of the front met with Pettine to discuss simplifying the pass rush. Prior to said meeting, the Packers averaged 2.18 sacks per game. Since the meeting, Green Bay has averaged 3.5. Gary’s improvement in that time is notable as he only had 2.5 sacks prior to the Eagles game and has now sacked the quarterback four times in the past month and change.

There is also some undue rosiness with the Bucs’ offense after the Saints game. Brady averaged 0.11 EPA/dropback and the Bucs’ only touchdown drives were of 3, 40, and 20 yards. The Buccaneers didn’t so much win that game as Drew Brees and Jared Cook lost it with some very poor turnovers.

FiveThirtyEight has Green Bay favored by 3.5 points. Bovada currently has Green Bay favored by four. The implied odds of those lines are a Packers win likelihood around 67%. Green Bay can absolutely lose this game — perhaps the line can’t contain the Bucs’ pass rush, perhaps Rodgers has 2015 flashbacks, maybe Matt LaFleur spends too much time trying to establish the run against a stout front, maybe the Buccaneers offense gets it together after a choppy couple of weeks.

Virtually nothing is certain in football, but the Packers should win this game. That does not mean that they will, but they have been the better team this season, and they have been the better team down the stretch. Into the gauntlet one more time on the frozen tundra.