GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers hit the field for their first practice of training camp 162 days ago. They kicked off the season 133 days ago. They won games on Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Saturday.
The whole season unraveled over the span of 1 minute, 34 seconds in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers upset the Packers 31-26 to get to the Super Bowl. Two failures on first-and-goal loomed large, as did two three-and-outs following a pair of Jaire Alexander interceptions in the second half. Coach Matt LaFleur’s decision to kick a field goal late in the game, followed by the controversial pass-interference penalty on Kevin King, were critical moments.
But nothing mattered more than what happened at the end of the first half and the start of the second half.
With 28 seconds remaining in the first half, Sean Murphy-Bunting made a brilliant, one-handed interception against Aaron Rodgers at the Bucs’ 49. On third-and-4, Tom Brady went deep to tight end Cameron Brate. Safety Will Redmond should have intercepted the pass but the ball went right through his hands. On fourth down, Brady found running back Leonard Fournette for a gain of 6 to the Packers’ 39.
That set up a pass completion on par with the Hail Mary grabbed by Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks that stunned the Packers on the final play of the first half in the 2011 playoffs, and Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s infamous 75-yard catch and run that knocked the Packers out of the 2015 playoffs.
Scotty Miller streaked pass cornerback Kevin King for a 39-yard touchdown that gave the Buccaneers a 21-10 lead.
“B.A. wanted to go for it,” Brady said of coach Bruce Arians. “I liked the call and I am going to do whatever he asks me to do. Byron (Leftwich, the offensive coordinator) dialed up a great play, got behind the defense. It was just a great job by Scotty running a great route and getting open. I just tried to lay it out there for him to go grab it.”
Afterward, LaFleur didn’t mince any words about the call by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. It was a call that would seem to put Pettine on thin ice despite a strong finish to the season.
“It was man coverage. Definitely not the right call for the situation,” LaFleur said. “You can’t do stuff like that against a good football team and expect to win.”
With the ball to start the second half, the Packers had a chance to turn the momentum. Instead, a third-and-5 completion turned into a disaster when safety Jordan Whitehead’s jarring hit knocked the ball loose. Linebacker Devin White recovered the fumble and returned it 21 yards to the Packers’ 8. Brady connected with Brate for a touchdown on the next play.
Just like that, it was 28-10. The Packers rallied but their offensive line wasn’t strong enough, their receiver corps wasn’t good enough and their quarterback wasn’t efficient enough to complete the comeback.
“There were a lot of plays in that game that could have been made, that could have changed the outcome of the game,” LaFleur said. “But the ones that really hurt us the most were that play [the Miller touchdown] and then had the fumble and they score to make it 28-10. That really was the big difference in the football game. You just can’t do that stuff. I blame us as coaches for putting our guys in that situation. That’s inexcusable. That should not have happened.”