GREEN BAY, Wis. – It’s like Groundhog Day for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
Groundhog Day to Week 6, when the Packers were smashed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38-10.
Groundhog Day to last year’s NFC Championship Game, when the Packers were destroyed 37-20 in a rematch against the San Francisco 49ers.
And Groundhog Day to the 2011 playoffs. The Packers went 15-1 that season and Rodgers had arguably the greatest quarterbacking season in NFL history. The No. 1 seed and defending Super Bowl champions were stunned at home by the New York Giants 37-20 in the divisional round. Hakeem Nicks’ 37-yard touchdown on a Hail Mary to end the first half sent the Packers reeling into the locker room with a 20-10 deficit.
On Sunday, Rodgers – coming off one of the great quarterbacking seasons in NFL history – finally had homefield advantage for an NFC Championship Game. However, it was a repeat of so many other playoff disappointments for a team that has won a lot of regular-season games but never can win the really big one.
With a shot at getting to their first Super Bowl since 2010, the Packers lost to Tom Brady’s Buccaneers 31-26 at Lambeau Field.
Brady, playing in his 14th conference championship game and first with his new team, will get a home game for the Super Bowl in two weeks.
The Packers, meanwhile, will be left to ponder the golden opportunity that slipped away. Rodgers is expected to win a third MVP but who will join him on a team that is well over the salary cap? Where will the improvement come from with no money to spend in free agency and a pick toward the end of the first round? And how do they pick up the pieces from a team that had every opportunity to win but failed to deliver?
Brady was 20-of-36 passing for 280 yards and three touchdowns but also three interceptions. Rodgers was 33-of-48 passing for 346 yards and three touchdowns. He threw one interception, was sacked five times – three by Shaquil Barrett and two by Jason Pierre-Paul as the offensive tackles were overwhelmed. Able to win the past two games without All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, his absence was obvious. Two red-zone failures were killers.
Rodgers had two opportunities to get the Packers a go-ahead touchdown and another to score the potential tying touchdown but managed only a field goal on the third of those drives – a failure, all things considered, after getting a first-and-goal at the 8. Rodgers might have scrambled inside the 5 on the third-down play. Coach Matt LaFleur might have kept the offense on the field on fourth down. Instead, Mason Crosby's chip-shot field goal made it 31-26 with 2:05 to play.
That put the ball in the court of the defense, which had recorded four consecutive stops but needed to prevent Brady, the six-time Super Bowl champion, from getting one first down. It was a huge roll of the dice by LaFleur.
With a first down at the 31, 1:56 on the clock and all three timeouts, the Packers forced a third-and-4 with 1:46 remaining. Brady had time and his pass to Tyler Johnson sailed just over his head. However, an officiating crew that let the players be aggressive all day flagged Kevin King for pass interference for a tug on the back of Johnson's jersey. LaFleur was irate but it made no difference. The 15-yard penalty essentially ended the game.
The decisive blows came just before and just after halftime.
First, Brady found Scotty Miller sprinting away from King for a 39-yard touchdown with 1 second remaining in the half. It was a momentous swing. The Packers had the ball with a chance to at least pull within a point but Rodgers was intercepted by Sean Murphy-Bunting. One dropped interception by Will Redmond and one fourth-down conversion by Brady set up the end-of-the-half touchdown that made it 21-10.
The Packers badly needed a drive to start the third quarter. Instead, on a third-down catch, running back Aaron Jones fumbled on a hit by safety Jordan Whitehead. Bucs linebacker Devin White scooped up the loose ball and gave the Bucs a first-and-goal at the 8. The Bucs were in the end zone on the next play, with Brady’s play-action fake creating an easy touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Brate.
Just like that, it was 28-10 and the Packers looked doomed. Instead, unlike some other playoff defeats, they picked themselves off the mat. Rodgers answered Brady’s touchdown with one of his own, an 8-yard touchdown to Robert Tonyan that made it 28-17 and woke up the 8,578 frozen fans.
Brady went for the answer with a deep ball to Mike Evans but safety Adrian Amos continued his strong second half of the season with an interception. On third-and-goal from the 2, the Bucs blitzed and Rodgers connected with Davante Adams for the score. Equanimeous St. Brown dropped an easy pass for the two-point play, keeping it 28-23.
Green Bay actually had two chances to take the lead following back-to-back interceptions by Jaire Alexander. On the first, Brady’s pass was too high for even the 6-foot-5 Evans to haul down. It glanced off his hands and Alexander showed incredible reaction skills for the pick. On the second, Darnell Savage’s blitz resulted in a wing-and-a-prayer deep ball by Brady that was intercepted.
However, Rodgers and Co. couldn’t do anything with the takeaways. On the first, right tackle Rick Wagner gave up a third-down sack to Barrett. On the second, Wagner gave up a first-down sack to Barrett and Allen Lazard couldn’t make a tough third-down catch.