Here's my prediction for the game, up front and center: the Bucs are going to lose to the Packers, and it's not going to be pretty.
The reason for that is simple: Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay quarterback is playing at a ridiculously high level now, a level which no other QB in the NFL can approach at this point in time. He is completing 72.9% of his passes for an ungodly 9.7 yards per attempt, and is on pace to throw 50 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. If Rodgers does not slow down, he will have the best season a quarterback has ever had, and it won't be particularly close.
And this weekend he gets to face a defense that has been incapable of reaching the quarterback or stopping a pass this year. That will be fun! For Green Bay fans.
I'm not sure what has happened with the Bucs' pass defense this year. Last season the Bucs' pass defense was their defensive strength, relatively speaking. They ranked 13th in the league by Football Outsiders' numbers in 2010. They managed to stop some good passers, especially later in the year and in the second halves of games. More impressively, they did so despite losing Tanard Jackson for most of the year and Aqib Talib for the secod half of the year.
So with those two returning this year you'd expect an uptick in pass defense. Instead, teams have been able to pass willy-nilly on the Bucs' defense. Man coverage or zone coverage, it doesn't really matter: they haven't been able to stop anyone. That will be a huge, probably insurmountable problem against the best quarterback in the league. I don't think the Bucs can stop that offense.
Does this mean the Bucs can't win the game? No, because the Packers don't really have anything outside of their pass offense. Their run offense has been basically absent, while their defense had a good game against the Minnesota Vikings this week, but they've been lackluster at best the rest of the season. Their pass rush hasn't really materialized, they haven't really been able to cover very well and their run defense hasn't shown up either.
The Bucs have a shot against the Packers if they can capitalize on those mistakes. Run defense shouldn't be a big problem this week, simply because Green Bay isn't very good at running the ball. That means they can concentrate on stopping the pass. And while that's very hard against Aaron Rodgers, they have a shot if they can get some pressure on him. Steve White does a great explain how they could do this on his blog.
That said, it should be noted that the Bucs have really struggled to get a consistent pass rush going since the Chicago game. It seems Clayborn has slowed down a little, perhaps feeling the effects of playing nine games at this level in a short time: the infamous rookie wall. Meanwhile the Bucs have been completely incapable of getting any kind of interior pressure without Gerald McCoy. Michael Bennett is currently the only defensive lineman to consistently impact an offense.
On the other side of the ball, the Bucs have to figure out a way to get going. And although I say this every week, they must establish the ground game as a foundation for their offense. Josh Freeman's struggles have prevented the Bucs from being any good as a pass-first team, but the Bucs keep attempting to go back to that. They refuse to have their offense run through the running back, and that's a real problem for a team that struggles to pass consistently.
The good news is that the Packers do not have a good run defense and can be run on. The bad news is that the Packers have an explosive offense that can get ahead quickly. If they do, Greg Olson will most likely abandon the run. And if that happens, the Bucs cannot win unless Freeman and his receivers somehow finally get it together this week.
If all goes well, the Bucs could win. But everything has to go their way for that to happen, and every Buccaneer will have to play at a high level. If that does happen, two players can have monster games: Adrian Clayborn and Legarrette Blount. If the Bucs can stick with the run, Blount should have his first really big game of 2011. Meanwhile, Clayborn faces backup left tackle Marshall Newhouse - a player he should easily beat. Ultimately, though, I think the Bucs lose with some ugly numbers. 35-14 sounds about right.
What do you think the final score will be, and who do you think will have a big game?