GREEN BAY, Wis. – On fourth-and-goal from the 8 late in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur faced the biggest decision of his tenure – and perhaps the biggest decision he’ll ever face.
Trailing 31-23 just before the 2-minute warning, LaFleur could have kept his MVP quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, and the offense on the field for one more shot at a touchdown.
Or, he could kick a field goal and hope his defense could get a stop.
In other words, LaFleur either could put his trust in Rodgers to make two plays – the touchdown and two-point conversion – to potentially force overtime. Or, he could put his trust in the defense to get another stop against six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
Despite the analytics, LaFleur went with the latter and got burned. Mason Crosby made the field goal to cut the margin to 31-26 but the Buccaneers got three first downs to run out the clock.
“Anytime it doesn’t work out you always regret it, right?” LaFleur said. “But it was just the circumstances of having three shots and coming away with no yards, and knowing that you not only need the touchdown but you need the two-point. The way I was looking at it was we essentially had four timeouts with the 2-minute warning, and we knew we needed to get a stop. I thought we were going to have a stop there at the end.”
That came on third-and-4 from the 37. Brady, with Rashan Gary applying pressure, fired a pass to rookie receiver Tyler Johnson. The ball sailed over Johnson’s head but cornerback Kevin King was called for pass interference.
By the letter of the law, King was guilty as charged. Replays from Fox showed King had a handful of Johnson’s jersey. The Packers’ contention was the officials let the players go at it all night and, essentially, changed the rules at a key moment. Moreover, they questioned whether the ball was even catchable.
Whatever. The penalty gave the Buccaneers the first down necessary to essentially clinch their return trip home for the Super Bowl.
“The way our defense was battling, the way our defense was playing, it felt like it was the right decision to do and it just didn’t work out,” LaFleur said.
Rodgers didn’t say he disagreed with the decision. But he didn’t say he agreed with it, either.
“I didn't have a decision on that one,” Rodgers said. “That wasn't my decision, but understand the thinking, above two minutes, with all of our timeouts but, yeah, it wasn’t my decision.”
The Buccaneers were as surprised as anyone.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who had three sacks. “I know if they could take that back, they probably wouldn’t do that next time.”
While the fourth-down decision belonged to LaFleur, everything that transpired on third down was on Rodgers. LaFleur left that call in Rodgers’ hands after LaFleur called a play and Rodgers wanted something else. Had Rodgers known what LaFleur was thinking about on fourth down, Rodgers said he might have called a different play. Or, perhaps he would have run it to pick up about half the necessary yards. Instead, he tried to squeeze a ball to Davante Adams between two defenders at the goal line.
“I thought we maybe were going to have four chances,” Rodgers said.
The game boiled down to more than LaFleur’s fourth-down decision. Even a touchdown wouldn’t have guaranteed anything. They would have needed the two-point conversion to tie. And they would have needed to stop Brady, regardless.
“I felt like we had plenty of opportunities tonight to take advantage of and get the job done,” LaFleur said. “We didn’t do it, and that falls on me and that’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re responsibility 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.”