GREEN BAY — The conversation was four years ago, in the wake of the 2016 NFC Championship Game.
Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson had been together for nine years with the Green Bay Packers — Nelson joining the team as a second-round pick in 2008, the same year Rodgers had risen to the starting quarterback job — and for all they’d accomplished together, the 2010 team’s Super Bowl XLV title was rapidly morphing into a mere sepia-toned memory.
They’d been upset at home by the New York Giants as the NFC’s No. 1 seed in the 2011 playoffs, been embarrassed by the San Francisco 49ers and Colin Kaepernick in the 2012 playoffs, then lost again to the Niners the following postseason. Then came the that rip-your-heart-out fourth-quarter meltdown in Seattle in the 2014 NFC title game, followed by another overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 playoffs.
But the Packers’ blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the 2016 NFC Championship — played at the old Georgia Dome, which was set to be demolished and replaced by the sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a matter of months — was the coup de grâce. Rodgers was convinced that the outcome would have been different had the game been played at Lambeau Field, and the two close friends commiserated about how they’d never played at home with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
Even that Super Bowl XLV year, they’d had to take their show on the road to get there, beating the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The last NFC Championship Game played at Lambeau Field had been the 2007 title game, a loss to the Giants for which Rodgers was the backup behind a frozen and ineffective Brett Favre, and Nelson was a senior social science major at Kansas State.
“Jordy and I talked about it years ago. I had a lot of starts in this league without being able to be a part of hosting the NFC Championship,” Rodgers recounted in the aftermath of the Packers’ 32-18 NFC divisional playoff win over the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday — a victory that punched the Packers’ ticket to Sunday’s NFC title game. “I remember what it felt like in 2007, especially after we watched the Giants beat Dallas. Us and Dallas, we thought, were the two best teams in the NFC that year. The Giants beat them, and we felt really good about hosting. And, our chances.”
This year’s team will try to avoid that team’s fate next Sunday at 2:05 p.m. against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in a rematch of the teams’ Oct. 18 meeting at Raymond James Stadium, a game the Buccaneers won 38-10.
The Buccaneers advanced with a 30-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday evening in New Orleans, where Drew Brees threw three interceptions and the Buccaneers snapped a 20-20 fourth-quarter tie with the game’s final 10 points.
The Buccaneers’ victory set up a showdown between two future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the 37-year-old Rodgers and 43-year-old Tom Brady — and just their fourth head-to-head matchup of their legendary careers.
Before this season, Rodgers and Brady had only faced each other as starters twice: In a 2014 matchup at Lambeau Field, which the Packers won 26-21, with a rookie wide receiver named Davante Adams catching six passes for 121 yards; and a 2018 meeting at Gillette Stadium, which the Packers lost 31-17. (The two also were on the field together in 2006, when Brett Favre started a 35-0 loss but left the game with an elbow injury. Rodgers came on in relief and finished the game despite playing the entire second half on a broken foot).
Now, they’ll face off for the second time in a three-month span.
“(Brady) has obviously done it at the highest of levels for so long. He’s been an icon at the position. He’s been somebody that we’ve all looked up to for so many years as the standard of excellence,” Rodgers said before the Oct. 18 game. “I think there’s a ton of admiration and respect for the way that he’s played the game from so many of us, especially us guys who’ve been in the same era for so many years with him and gotten to compete with him every now and then, (me) being an NFC guy.”
In that game, Rodgers threw a pair of interceptions — including a pick-6 that cornerback Jamel Dean returned 32 yards after the Packers got out to a 10-0 lead. Rodgers finished the game with his worst passer rating of the season (35.4) and completed just 16 of 35 passes for 160 yards without a touchdown — the only game all season in which Rodgers failed to throw a touchdown pass.
Rodgers went on to finish the regular season with 48 touchdown passes, only five interceptions and an NFL-best 121.5 passer rating, the second-highest in NFL history (to his 122.5 rating in 2011). And against the Rams, he went 23 for 36 for 296 yards with two touchdown passes and a TD run for a 108.1 rating.
“Those guys are obviously great, great players, have been for a long time,” Rodgers said of Brees and Brady after beating the Rams. “The combined age of the starting quarterbacks will definitely be up there in the NFC Championship.”
Brady, meanwhile, will be playing in his 14th conference championship game of his career — and first in the NFC after taking his six Super Bowl rings from his time with the New England Patriots and joining the Buccaneers during the offseason.
Against the Saints, Brady completed 18 of 33 passes for 199 yards with one sack, two touchdown passes, another touchdown on a 1-yard quarterback sneak and a 92.9 passer rating.
“It’s great for our team. We worked hard to get to this point — two road playoff wins are pretty sweet,” Brady told FOX Sports after the game. “We’ve got to go beat a good football team. Aaron’s playing incredible, and we’re going to have to play great to beat ‘em.”
After welcoming 8,456 fans (including 7,439 paying customers) to Lambeau Field on Saturday night, the Packers announced on Sunday that they’ll again have fans in the stands next Sunday. Again, the team said it planned to sell roughly 6,500 tickets to season-ticket-holders who opted in before the season. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Wednesday through Ticketmaster, with tickets being sold in pods of two, four and six seats, with one pod allowed per each season ticket account.
The Packers players all raved about the impact the fans had against the Rams, insisting that the small gathering felt like one much, much larger in the 81,000-seat stadium.
“They said 9,000. I don't know about 9,000. It looked like it was half of what we usually have,” Adams said. “They were big and they were loud, loud in the perfect situations at the end of that game, just making it tough for (the Rams) to communicate. It was huge.”
Meanwhile, the kickoff temperature at Lambeau Field Saturday against the Rams was 35 degrees. The National Weather Service’s early forecast for Sunday calls for a chance of snow showers with mostly cloudy skies and a high near 27 degrees.
“We got either a dome team coming in here or a team that plays in 85-degree weather every day coming here,” Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark said after beating the Rams. “The weather, it’s going to be huge for us. Us not having to travel is going to be huge for us. You got everything here. Having our crowd now, that’s huge for us. I know everybody’s going to be excited to finally have a home game, for one of these NFC Championship Games. We’ve got to just give it everything we got. This is the big one. We’ve got to get to the Super Bowl.”