For the fourth time in the past decade, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have come up short in the NFC Championship Game. Of all the Packers’ recent playoff failures, this one has to hurt the most. It brings a bitter conclusion to a season they finished as the top seed in the NFC and were odds-on favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
The Packers have no one to blame for this monumental disappointment but themselves.
Defensive lapses cost the Packers early
At kickoff, temperatures were just below freezing. In theory, this would have given the hometown Packers a home-field advantage. However, it seemed like the only thing that was frozen in the first half was the Packers’ secondary.
Tom Brady ruthlessly picked Green Bay’s pass defense apart in the early stages of the game. This included an opening drive where he found a wide-open Mike Evans in the corner of the end zone. It’s worth noting that Evans was limited in practice all week with recurring knee issues, so how he burned Kevin King to ashes like this is anyone’s guess.
Green Bay could barely muster up a response. The score stood at 14-10 Tampa Bay before the Packers’ porous defense committed another fatal error. Inexplicably, they let Scott “Scooty” Miller open for a 39-yard touchdown on the penultimate play of the first half. Just like that, it went from a one-score game to a two-score game, and the Packers went into the locker room stunned and demoralized.
A late rally is ruined by bad decisions
In the second half, the tables seemed to turn. After another Buccaneers touchdown, the Packers clawed their way back to within five with two straight touchdown drives. They dominated time of possession after halftime, thanks in part to three consecutive Tom Brady interceptions.
But Rodgers and the Packers’ offense failed to capitalize on many of those breaks. Brady’s second interception led to a three-and-out. On the drive that could have tied the game, the two men responsible for leading the team — Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur — made two fatal gaffes that will haunt them for the rest of their careers. On third down, Rodgers, an above-average running quarterback, failed to spot a wide-open lane to the end zone and opted for a risky pass that fell incomplete.
The next play drew even more questions. With the Packers still down by eight points, LaFleur called on Mason Crosby to kick a chip-shot field goal. As Troy Aikman pointed out on the FOX broadcast, this made little difference, as even with the field goal, the Packers still needed a touchdown to win.
They would not get the chance. The Buccaneers made LaFleur pay for his baffling decision by running out the clock with their next possession. After the game, even Rodgers admitted that the field-goal call “wasn’t [his] decision.”
But what about the refs?
As Joe Buck and Troy Aikman repeatedly pointed out, the officiating crew “let them play out there”. In many instances where penalties probably should have been called, the flags stayed in the referees’ pockets. One could re-watch the entire game and count dozens of missed or ignored holding, pass interference, or personal foul calls against either team.
The one glaring exception came toward the very end of the game, and it certainly didn’t help the Packers’ cause. On third and four, with 1:46 remaining, Brady threw an incomplete pass over the middle to Tyler Johnson. For the first time in what seemed like hours (possibly because it was), a flag fell. Kevin King, who had been burned by Tom Brady all afternoon, was called for pass interference. First down, Tampa Bay.
Admittedly, it’s hard for Packers fans not to feel burned by this call. By the strictest definition, you could say it was pass interference, but considering the kinds of infractions that didn’t get called earlier, that won’t sit well. Then again, if Aaron Rodgers had chosen to run in for an easy touchdown instead of throwing on that third down earlier, maybe the Packers wouldn’t have been in that position in the first place.