The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense bent but didn't break on the most important drive of Sunday's NFC Championship Game, and as a result they'll become the first team to play in a Super Bowl in their hometown. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers marched down the field with four minutes left in the game trailing by eight points, but couldn't punch it in the end zone after reaching first-and-goal on the 8-yard line.
Rodgers passed it short to Davante Adams twice in a row to set up Green Bay in the red zone. Rodgers then threw three straight incomplete passes inside the 10-yard line and instead of going for a touchdown and two-point attempt, the Packers kicked a field goal. Mason Crosby's 26-yard field goal made it a five-point game with 2:09 left.
The decision to kick a field goal might haunt the Packers down the road as the Bucs regained possession up five and ran out the clock. Tampa Bay was bailed out on third down with 1:46 remaining when quarterback Tom Brady targeted receiver Tyler Johnson as defensive pass interference was called. The Bucs ran just a few more plays securing a win and the NFC Championship for Tampa Bay.
With the 31-26 victory over the Packers, the Bucs advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2002-03.
Brady threw three touchdowns to go along with 280 yards and three interceptions. Rodgers, who was sacked five times, finished with 346 yards and three touchdowns while throwing one interception.
Bucs running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II essentially split the carries for the team with Fournette carrying the ball two more times than Jones. Fournette finished with 55 yards on the ground and one touchdown.
After three straight drives resulting in an interception, Brady was able to find old reliable, Rob Gronkowski for 29 yards. Brady missed Chris Godwin on second down and was forced to throw the ball into the ground on third down. Bucs' kicker Ryan Succop nailed a 46-yard field goal which extended Tampa Bay's lead to eight points with 4:46 left in the game.
Godwin led the team with 110 receiving yards on just five catches. But it was Mike Evans, Scotty Miller, and Cameron Brate who caught Brady's three touchdowns. Evans finished the game with three catches for 51 yards to go along with his touchdown grab.
Brady threw his second interception of the game looking for Evans over the middle but overthrew his target. Evans tipped the pass and Jaire Alexander picked off Brady giving the ball back to the Packers with 12:34 left in the game.
The Bucs' defense responded well as Shaquill Barrett came up with a big sack on third and five. However, Brady did his defense no favors throwing an interception on a third straight drive. Alexander again picked off Brady on a pass that was intended for Evans. And like the first time, Tampa Bay's defense was able to get off the field thanks to the stout pass rush of Barrett and Co.
Barrett recorded three sacks during the game, joining Warren Sapp (1998) as the only players in team history with three or more sacks in a playoff game.
The Packers opened the second half with the ball and on the third play of the opening drive, Rodgers tossed a screen pass to Jones. Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead knocked the ball loose recording his second forced fumble of the game, but this time Devin White recovered the ball at the Green Bay eight yardline.
On the very next play, Brady tossed his third touchdown of the game finding Cameron Brate over the middle of the field. Brady's three touchdowns against Green Bay are the most in a single playoff game in Buccaneers' postseason history.
Rodgers responded as he needed to on the following drive completing five-of-six passes including an eight-yard pass to Robert Tonyan. Green Bay was able to cut into Tampa Bay's lead with 9:28 left in the third quarter as the Bucs lead 28-17.
Brady targeted Evans deep down the field but instead, Adrian Amos made the play for an interception. Brady's forced pass to Evans never had a chance as he threw his first interception on the road since Week 1.
The Packers took advantage of the interception and drove down the field successfully behind the accurate passing of Rodgers. At one point on the drive, Rodgers completed seven straight passes. With 24 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Rodgers hit Adams over the middle for a two-yard touchdown pass making the score 28-23, after a failed two-point attempt.
The Bucs entered the fourth quarter up five and despite multiple interceptions by Brady, Tampa Bay was able to hold on when it was all said and done.
Brady and Evans were on the same page early as the Bucs struck first. Tampa Bay converted three third downs on its opening drive, starting with a 33-yard pass from Brady to Evans. Chris Godwin caught an 18-yard pass on 3rd and 9 setting the Bucs up in the red zone. After struggling in the red zone last week, Tampa Bay converted a 15-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Evans putting the Bucs up 7-0 at the 10:59 mark of the first quarter.
After the teams exchanged punts, the Packers found themselves backed up in their own end zone. Rodgers connected with Allen Lazard keeping the drive alive converting on 3rd and 15. Then, Rodgers took a shot downfield to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who burned Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis for the 50-yard touchdown. The Packers tied the game at 7 early in the second quarter.
Tampa Bay responded with a touchdown of their own on the following drive. After dropping a pass on second down, wide receiver Chris Godwin made up for it making an acrobatic catch for 52 yards on third and long. Leonard Fournette showed his strength on the following play breaking tackles and diving in the end zone for the 20-yard touchdown run. Tampa Bay led 14-7 at the 12:24 mark of the second quarter.
Green Bay continued to have success moving the ball on the ground as running back Aaron Jones ran the ball five times for 30 yards. Once inside the 10-yard line, however, Rodgers threw to Davonte Adams three straight times, and all three times failed. Lavonte David broke up a pass on second and Adams stepped out of bounds on third and goal. The Packers settled for a field goal and Tampa Bay led 14-10 with 5:02 remaining in the first half.
Tampa Bay was forced to punt with 2:17 left in the half and it seemed as though Rodgers and Co. would take advantage and score before halftime. Sean Murphy-Bunting had other plans picking off Rodgers giving Brady 34 seconds left in the half to work his magic. After converting 4th and 4, Brady took a shot downfield to Scotty Miller for the 39-yard touchdown. At halftime, the Bucs led 21-10.