GREEN BAY, Wis. – A trip to the Super Bowl was within the Green Bay Packers’ grasp. Instead, the NFL’s top-ranked offense and the presumptive MVP quarterback failed to deliver.
The Packers’ 31-26 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game will go down as one of the most horrific losses in franchise history. A great team, led by a great quarterback, playing at home, couldn’t get the job done. Because of it, a decade-long championship drought could extend for years and years and years.
“We had a lot of chances but, overall, just pretty gutted,” a solemn Aaron Rodgers said.
Season-long strengths, namely red-zone offense and pass protection, became weaknesses. Then, when the Packers absolutely needed a drive, they couldn’t deliver.
Trailing 14-7 midway through the second quarter, the Packers had a first-and-goal at the 6. Green Bay led the NFL in red-zone efficiency and quite possibly fielded the best red-zone offense in NFL history. During the regular season, Rodgers threw 35 touchdown passes vs. 23 incompletions in the red zone. Davante Adams led the NFL in touchdown catches, with the bulk of that production in the red zone. However, three consecutive passes to Adams resulted in incompletions – the first-down pass glanced off his hands – and the Packers had to settle for a 24-yard field goal.
“We’ve been so good in the red zone all season. This was a game where we needed seven and didn’t come up with it a couple of times,” Rodgers said.
Still trailing 14-10, the Packers had a chance to drive to at least a field goal when they started at their 13 with 2:10 remaining in the first half. After a big completion to Allen Lazard moved the ball to the 40, Rodgers was sacked to make it second-and-17 at the 33. Rodgers, who led the NFL in interception percentage, threw the ball to Allen Lazard, who had no separation from cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting and was intercepted. Murphy-Bunting clearly held Lazard but Lazard wasn’t open, anyway.
That was the start of the disastrous sequence that ended in Tom Brady’s long touchdown pass to Scotty Miller just before halftime that gave the Buccaneers a 21-10 lead.
Then, on the third play of the third quarter, running back Aaron Jones fumbled on a jarring hit by Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead. Jones’ second fumble of the game – he fumbled twice all season – gift-wrapped a touchdown that made it 28-10.
Green Bay rallied, though, as Rodgers got rolling. After Adrian Amos’ interception, Rodgers hit Adams for a 2-yard touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown’s drop of what should have been an easy two-point conversion left Green Bay trailing 28-23 with 24 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The Packers intercepted Brady on each of the next two possession, as well. Starting at its 19- and 24-yard lines, Rodgers and Co. couldn’t do anything with the gifts. Both possessions were three-and-out punts. Rodgers dropped back to pass six times, was sacked twice – the impact of All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari’s torn ACL showing up at the worst possible time – and completed one pass for 5 yards.
During the regular season, the Packers forced 18 turnovers and turned those into 12 touchdowns and three field goals. Of the other three possessions, the Packers ran out the clock to end the game twice and Rodgers threw an interception. So, that’s 17 successful drives out of 18. Instead, with two chances to take the lead, the offense failed miserably.
“We had the ball there, all the momentum and just kind of needed one first down to get going and we just didn’t get it, which was disappointing,” Rodgers said.
After the second of those punts, the Bucs drove to a field goal to extend their lead to 31-23 with 4:42 to play.
That set up Green Bay’s final offensive possession. Completions of 29 yards to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and 11 yards to Adams helped set up a first-and-goal at the 8. Once again, the NFL’s best red-zone offense failed. Rodgers and Lazard weren’t on the same page on first down. Ndamukong Suh batted down Rodgers’ sprintout on second down. And Rodgers turned down a scramble that would have picked up at least half the yards on third down and threw incomplete into double coverage to Adams.
Coach Matt LaFleur took the blame for the red-zone failures.
“I just talked to (offensive coordinator Nathaniel) Hackett about this right before we came in here,” he said, “and a lot of times when we got down there we did a really good job running the football and having actions off of it, and then you look at it today, and I think we probably had a little too much dropback.”
LaFleur kicked a field goal on fourth down and the Packers never got the ball.
With that, their season ended with yet another bitter playoff disappointment. Of Rodgers’ nine playoff losses, five have been decided by a touchdown.
“I felt like we had plenty of opportunities tonight to take advantage and get the job done. And we didn’t do it, and that falls on me,” LaFleur said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow. You’re responsible for everybody in this organization to make sure that you’re on your ‘A’ game, and I don’t feel like I was tonight. I’m just pretty disappointed that I let a lot of people down.”