By STEVE MEGARGEE
For as much as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have accomplished in their Hall of Fame-caliber careers, they’ve rarely faced off on the field.
Never have they met with so much at stake.
When Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers (14-3) host Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) in the NFC championship game Sunday, it will be just the fourth time they’ve squared off as starting quarterbacks, and first in the playoffs.
“I remember when I heard the news about him coming to the NFC, I thought this was a real possibility,” Rodgers said. “I’m excited about the opportunity to play against him one more time.”
The Bucs trounced the Packers 38-10 in Tampa on Oct. 18. They met two other times during Brady’s tenure in New England, with the Packers winning 26-21 at Green Bay in 2014 and the Patriots winning 31-17 in Foxborough four years later.
Both understand all eyes will be on them Sunday. Kurt Warner, the Hall of Fame quarterback and NFL Network analyst, said that’s just human nature.
“When I played, I always knew who was on the other sideline,” Warner said. “I always said when I went into these matchups, at the end of the day, I know if we’re going to win this game, I’ve got to outperform that guy. I’ve got to be better than the quarterback on the other side.”
Brady, 43, has helped the Bucs earn a franchise-record seven straight road wins. A win at Lambeau Field clinches their first Super Bowl berth since their 2002 championship season.
“This is one of the coolest stadiums in the league to play in,” Brady said. “I know they’re excited, we’ll be excited, and it will make for a great football game.”
Brady is trying to join Warner, Peyton Manning and Craig Morton as the only quarterbacks to lead two separate franchises to a Super Bowl. He already won six Super Bowls and played in nine total with the Patriots.
Green Bay is making its fourth NFC championship game appearance in the past seven seasons, but Rodgers hasn’t reached a Super Bowl since leading the Packers to a title in the 2010 season. Warner said the postseason weighs heavily on where players stack up in history.
“That’s why Tom is the GOAT (greatest of all time),” Warner said. “It’s why Joe Montana is up there and guys who’ve been there numerous times — the John Elways — and everyone else kind of gets knocked down a notch. Even though they’re been great in the regular season, there’s a combination of the two that I think weighs heavily.”
Simply put, Rodgers needs this victory more than Brady.
“He plays in one Super Bowl, I think there will be something about that that just doesn’t sit right with anybody,” Warner said. “It doesn’t sit right with any of us who love this game and know how great he’s been. It just doesn’t seem to fit.”
This may be the best remaining chance for the 37-year-old Rodgers at that elusive second Super Bowl berth.
“It’s been a while since he was last a world champion,” CBS Sports analyst and 2002 NFL MVP Rich Gannon said. “I think that would certainly cement his legacy as one of the greatest to ever play the game in my opinion. Not that he needs it, but I’m just telling you that’s probably how he’s wired.”
Green Bay has committed a league-low 11 turnovers this season, including only two during its current seven-game winning streak. The Bucs have scored 27 points off five takeaways during their two playoff victories.
LONG TIME COMING
Tampa Bay ended a 12-year playoff drought this season. The journey to the NFC championship game has been especially gratifying for ninth-year linebacker Lavonte David, eighth-year defensive linemen William Gholston and seventh-year receiver Mike Evans. They’ve spent their entire careers with the Bucs.
“It just goes to show throughout the hard times, the people upstairs and around the building believed in me,” David said. “Obviously, I believed in them, as well. It’s just an honor to still be here, to still be able to live out my dream as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.”
The Packers have allowed just 21 sacks all season and didn’t give up any sacks last week against the Los Angeles Rams, who had 53 sacks during the regular season. But they allowed five sacks in their regular-season loss to Tampa Bay.
JONES VS. JONES
Green Bay’s Aaron Jones rushed for 1,104 yards in the regular season and ran for 99 more against the Rams, but he was held to 15 yards on 10 carries when the Packers lost to Tampa Bay in October.
Tampa Bay’s Ronald Jones rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns in that Oct. 18 victory over Green Bay. He split carries with Leonard Fournette in Tampa Bay’s triumph at New Orleans last week.
ROAD BACK HOME
Tampa Bay is seeking to become the first team in league history to advance to a Super Bowl that will be played in its home stadium.
“We don’t play that game this week. That’s the message to everybody,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We play the Packers in the NFC championship game. If you start thinking about the Super Bowl, you get beat and (will) be packing your bags on Monday.”
AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa contributed to this report.