Safe to say this is going to be a very, very long offseason that started far too early.
This year’s NFC Championship game pit the Green Bay Packers against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a battle of two old heads – and to the surprise of no one in the state of Wisconsin, the Packers were unable to pull out a big-game performance.
In Tom Brady’s first NFC Championship and Aaron Rodgers’ first NFC Championship at home, it was Brady and Bucs that came out ahead, 31-26. A super disappointing end to the season for Green Bay, there are going to be a lot of roster holes and questions that will need answering this offseason, posing a lot of hard decisions for both Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur.
After starting out with the ball, Brady calmly led the Bucs down the field to open the game, connecting with both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on deep balls to announce their presence at Lambeau. An over-the-top connection to Evans over corner Kevin King, who along with Chandon Sullivan were frequently abused by Brady in the passing game, got Tampa on the board first.
In Rodgers’ first time with the ball, the pass rush for the Bucs asserted its dominance early, as Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett were having their ways with the GB tackles, as both Billy Turner and Rick Wagner had their hands full and were beaten in the first half. Barrett got his first on the opening drive, taking Rodgers down on third down to force a punt.
Tampa got the ball right back after a sub-40 yard punt from J.K. Scott and kicked it right back after a nine-play drive, pinning the Pack back at their own 10.
The first scoring drive of the game for the Packers did not finish until two plays into the second quarter, as Rodgers connected with the oft-criticized Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 50-yard TD – MVS got behind the TB secondary in one-on-one and took it to the house, converting a short third-down conversion.
TB matched the MVS score with a scoring drive of their own, as Brady only needed four plays to drive 73 yards, resulting in a 20-yard scoring scamper from Leonard Fournette after he was initially stopped at the line of scrimmage. This drive was set up by a 52-yard connection from Brady to Godwin, as Godwin was passed off to the deep safety and came down with a jump ball over Darnell Savage.
Needing a score to stay in the game, Green Bay constructed a 15-play, 69-yard drive that only saw them put up a field goal, settling for a short, 24-yard boot to make it 14-10.
After a TB punt, Green Bay got the ball back with just over two minutes left before halftime with a chance to pair two scoring drives back-to-back, on top of getting the ball first out of the half. Of course, this did not happen, as a big-time missed holding call on Bucs’ DB Sean Murphy-Bunting resulted in him intercepting Rodgers at mid-field. Murphy-Bunting was in coverage on Allen Lazard, and he had a handful of jersey on most of the crossing route, stepping in front of Lazard at the last moment and corralling the pass from Rodgers to set the Bucs up before half.
Having changed the tone of the game, Brady helped swing the momentum fully in his team’s favor, as he connected with Scotty Miller on a last-second heave over, you guessed it, King to make it 21-10 heading into the locker room. DC Mike Pettine, for some unknown reason, decided that putting his defense out in man coverage across the board with around five seconds left was a much smarter decision than throwing out a prevent zone and forcing TB to settle for a field goal.
Coming out of half, Green Bay had to put points up on the board fast, but their opening-half drive came to a screeching halt only three plays in. After connecting with Aaron Jones on a crossing route in an attempted third-down conversion, Jones was hit by safety Jordan Whitehead and fumbled, with Devin White recovering and taking the ball back to the GB 21.
Both Jones and Whitehead were hurt on this play and did not return, meaning that this may very well be the final time that we see Jones in a Packers uniform.
Only needing one play to capitalize, the Bucs extended their lead to 28-10, as Brady connected with tight end Cameron Brate on a play-action pass over the top of the GB defense. At time point, the air seemed to be fully sucked out of Lambeau, as the writing was essentially on the wall already.
In an attempt to produce Herculean results yet again, Rodgers led a TD drive the next time he got the ball, as he found TE Robert Tonyan for a short, eight-yard score. After a Mason Crosby extra point, it now stood at 28-17 with around 9:30 left in the third quarter.
The first of three drives that ended in Brady interceptions happened next, as safety Adrian Amos picked off a desperation heave on 2nd down to Evans, setting the Pack up at their own 32.
Settling in, Rodgers finally was able to find Davante Adams in the red zone after earlier misconnections, as Adams helped cap off another scoring drive with a nice two-yard TD on a slant against Carlton Davis. This was a 13-play drive that ate up exactly 7:30 of clock and helped swing a bit of momentum back in the favor of Green Bay.
Brady’s second INT of the game came on the seventh play of their next drive, as Jaire Alexander hauled in a deflected pass from Evans and halted a likely TD drive from Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, the ensuing three-play drive for Green Bay resulted in losing five yards and a punt, a missed opportunity that would have helped draw the deficit in even closer.
Alexander picked Brady off again on the next drive, as Savage blitzed and forced an errant heave from Brady that Alexander brought in for his second pick in as many drives – but just like the second time Brady was picked off, Green Bay was unable to do anything with it, settling for yet another three-and-out drive.
The final scoring drive for the Bucs was a field goal from kicker Ryan Succop, and it culminated in a 3-plus minute drive that made it 31-23. But the next drive was the biggest question that LaFleur will be answering for the rest of his coaching career.
After leading the team down into the red zone, the drive stalled out at the TB 8 and LaFleur went the safe route and kicked the field goal, bringing the game to its final score of 31-26. While needing to convert a 4th & Goal from eight yards out is no gimme, being in that situation with 2:05 left in your season and with how your defense has played, the thought of going for that TD should have been the prevailing decision, a decision that Rodgers said in post-game comments ‘wasn’t my decision.’
The Bucs bled down the rest of the clock, aided by the only time the refs decided to throw a flag all day. On a third down, a play that would have given GB the ball back for a final chance with around 90 seconds remaining, a defensive pass interference penalty involving, you guessed it, King and rookie receiver Tyler Johnson was called, ending the game due to the lack of timeouts that Green Bay had to use.
There will be further season recaps and offseason outlooks coming soon from the staff at PackersTalk but just wanted to give a big thank you for following us during this special Packers season. Obviously, things fell short of what we all had hoped for this season, but just because our Super Bowl journey is over does not mean our coverage will as well.뿓뿓뿓
Mike Johrendt has been an avid fan of the Packers ever since he can remember. He is now a writer at PackersTalk and you can follow him on Twitter at @MJohrendt23