Packers' first meeting with Buccaneers 'really doesn't matter'

Head Coach Matt LaFleur says Green Bay “has come a long way since that day” but must prove it

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QB Aaron Rodgers

GREEN BAY – Matt LaFleur isn't sweeping anything under the rug, but he's not going to spend this week dwelling on the Packers' 38-10 loss to the Buccaneers three months ago, either.

"When you get to this time of year, it really doesn't matter," LaFleur said Monday, addressing for the first time Green Bay's NFC Championship Game matchup against Tampa Bay.

"You're in the playoffs. You've got to focus on what's in front of you, both good and bad. We're always focusing on the future."

The Buccaneers themselves embodied that approach to set up this rematch, having lost to the Saints 38-3 in Week 9 – their second loss to New Orleans on the season – before knocking them off in the divisional round Sunday, 30-20, to earn a trip to Lambeau Field and battle for a Super Bowl berth.

LaFleur acknowledged there's plenty to learn from the defeat at Tampa Bay back in Week 6. An early 10-0 Packers lead vanished due to consecutive interceptions, and things never turned back around.

Protecting the ball will be priority No. 1, as Tampa Bay's four takeaways this past weekend were the difference in the Bucs' third meeting with the Saints.

LaFleur also admitted he got away from the running game back in October, and the pass-centric comeback effort was doomed by Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' pressure packages that the Packers struggled to handle, particularly when left tackle David Bakhtiari exited the game with an injury in the second half.

QB Aaron Rodgers was sacked four times and completed less than half his passes (16-of-35), the only time all season his completion rate was under 60%.

"I think they definitely got to us, got us a little off rhythm," LaFleur said. "Certainly that is a damn good defense. They've got star-studded players across the board. They play a really fast, aggressive type scheme. They can bring multiple different pressures."

The crux of that defense, which finished the regular season first in the league against the run, sixth in total yards, and eighth in points allowed, is the inside linebacker duo of Devin White and Lavonte David. Tampa Bay also has designated defensive lineman Vita Vea to return from injured reserve. He didn't play in the first meeting, having broken an ankle against the Bears the week before.

After the October blowout, which ended Green Bay's unbeaten start to the season, White said the Packers "didn't deserve to be on the field with us," but LaFleur isn't getting caught up in whether his players will use that as bulletin-board material or not.

"We're talking about the NFC Championship Game with an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl," LaFleur said. "I think that's enough motivation right there. You know, hey, he was right. They whipped us. There's no sense in talking about it. The only thing you can do is you've got to prepare the best you can and then go prove it."

While the situation looks similar to a year ago, when the Packers were blown out at San Francisco in the regular season heading into an NFC title game rematch, there are distinct differences in the scenarios.

For one, last year's first 49ers game was six weeks later in the regular season, and the Packers hadn't changed much in the interim. They have this time, charging their way to the No. 1 scoring offense in the league despite the 10-point output at Tampa, and continually improving on defense, which was not necessarily the case in 2019.

Also, this rematch is at Lambeau Field, the first time the iconic stadium has hosted an NFC title game in 13 years.

On Green Bay's side, receiver Allen Lazard and cornerback Kevin King missed the October game against the Bucs but have long since returned to the lineup. Bakhtiari is out for the season, though the Packers have changed up how they've adjusted to his absence.

Rick Wagner, who stepped in at left tackle for the second half in Week 6, is playing right tackle with Billy Turner now on the left side.

Also on the injury front, rookie running back AJ Dillon left Saturday's playoff game with a quad injury, and LaFleur said he's "hopeful" he'll be ready by Sunday but made no guarantees.

What he is certain of is he won't sugarcoat what happened to his team three months ago, but he won't worry about what qualifies as ancient history in NFL terms.

"Anytime you get beat 38-10, it's hard to say it's not as bad as it looked," LaFleur said. "They were more prepared to play than our group was. You're always learning. I think our team has come a long way from that day, but everything's just words at this point.

"You have to compete at a high level when the stakes are pretty damn high, and you have to go earn it."

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