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Green Bay Packers hope home field, bye work to their advantage in playoffs

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady and teammates watch a replay on the scoreboard in a game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Tampa, Fla. (AP photo)

The Green Bay Packers are the only NFL team that didn’t lose a game at home in the 2021 season. They’re counting on their frenzied fanbase and frigid climes to help them get to the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years.

“I’m really looking forward to having a full crowd, that good old Green Bay weather,” Aaron Rodgers said after the Packers’ 13-4 finish gave them the top seed in the NFC for the second straight year. “It’s been an advantage for us for a long time. I think it’s an advantage having 78,000 instead of 7,800 like we did last year.”

Actually, only 7,772 fans attended last year’s conference championship because of COVID-19 restrictions when Tom Brady led Tampa Bay to a 31-26 win at Lambeau Field. Brady and the Buccaneers went on to beat Kansas City in the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay’s first title since 2003 and Brady’s record seventh championship to go with the half dozen he won in New England.

This time, the Packers can have full capacity — 81,441 — at their games beginning with the divisional round.

The Buccaneers are the No. 2 seed followed by the Dallas Cowboys, led by rookie sensation Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs on defense and a talent-laden offense guided by a now-healthy Dak Prescott, and the Los Angeles Rams. The wild cards are Arizona, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady attempts a pass during a game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Tampa, Fla. (AP photo)

The Rams, powered by the midseason additions of Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller, are hoping to do what the Bucs did a year ago and play in the Super Bowl at their home stadium, SoFi Field in Inglewood, California, on Feb. 13.

Wild-card weekend pits the Eagles at the Buccaneers on Saturday, the 49ers at the Cowboys on Sunday and the Cardinals at the Rams on Monday night.

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1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (13-4).

Why they’ll prevail: The Packers can get to the Super Bowl without ever leaving Lambeau Field. Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers has thrown 20 TD passes without an interception over his past seven games, and he says the fractured pinky toe that bothered him the second half of the season is starting to feel better.

Why they’ll derail: A defense that seemed much improved under new coordinator Joe Barry for much of the season has started to slump. After allowing 18 points per game during an 8-2 start, the Packers have given up 27.3 points per game over their past nine. Special teams has been a major weakness all season.Slow starts also have been a problem. The Packers have been outscored 84-51 in the first quarter.

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2. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (13-4).

Why they’ll prevail: The defending champs haven’t been as dominant as some people envisioned when the team defied the odds by returning every starter from last season, but it hasn’t been because of Tom Brady and a potent offense that averaged 406 yards and 30.1 points.

Why they’ll derail: The dominant defense led by Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett and Devin White peaked late last season, keying an impressive postseason run.

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3. DALLAS COWBOYS (12-5).

Why they’ll prevail: QB Dak Prescott and the league’s No. 1 offense have plenty of options to send the Cowboys deeper in the playoffs than they’ve been in 26 years.

Why they’ll derail: The Cowboys have an opportunistic defense that led the NFL with 34 takeaways in the regular season.

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4. LOS ANGELES RAMS (12-5).

Why they’ll prevail: The Rams’ offense is good and getting better, with WR Cooper Kupp’s historic season and QB Matthew Stafford’s big-play ability pushing Los Angeles to five wins in six games down the stretch.

Why they’ll derail: Los Angeles’ defensive stars are supported by an unimpressive cast, and opponents have been taking advantage of those flaws.

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5. ARIZONA CARDINALS (11-6).

Why they’ll prevail: The best news for the Cardinals is that they’re going on the road.

Why they’ll derail: Simply put, the Cardinals aren’t playing very good football these days.

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6. SAN FRANCISCO 49ers (10-7).

Why they’ll prevail: The Niners offense is loaded with playmakers who can make big plays out of seemingly nothing.

Why they’ll derail: While San Francisco is loaded with playmakers, there are still major questions at quarterback.

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7. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (9-8).

Why they’ll prevail: Dual-threat QB Jalen Hurts leads the league’s best rushing offense, but also has talented playmakers in WR DeVonta Smith and TE Dallas Goedert.

Why they’ll derail: The Eagles were 0-6 against opponents that made the playoffs, 1-7 against teams that finished with a winning record.

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi, Josh Dubow and Schuyler Dixon and from AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall, Steve Megargee, David Brandt and Greg Beacham.

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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://apnews.com/hub/pro-32 and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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