Packers come up short in Super Bowl bid with 31-26 loss to Buccaneers in NFC title game
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers are no strangers to NFC championship game defeats, losing four now over the past seven seasons, but Sunday’s will sting most.
The Packers had everything quarterback Aaron Rodgers ever wanted. Kickoff at home. A warm-weather team coming to the tundra. All the pieces appeared to be aligning.
But just like it has every season in the past decade, four of those instances in the NFC championship game, the Packers' season ended short of a return to the Super Bowl.
The Packers lost 31-26 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship game, a gut-punch loss for a team and its 37-year-old quarterback that finally appeared poised to cross the invisible threshold.
The game will be analyzed from every angle, as championship games are, but a defensive pass interference inside the two-minute warning will be scrutinized. On third down, Tom Brady targeted Mike Evans against Kevin King, and his pass sailed over Evans’ head. There was contact between King and Evans, but it appeared Evans might have flopped.
Regardless, King was called for defensive pass interference for a jersey grab, and the game ended with the Bucs kneeling down.
It was among a handful of tough plays for King, who also gave up two touchdowns in the first half. The second came on a 39-yard strike on the half's final snap.
Here are five observations from the game.
With a fourth-and-goal from the 8 and trailing by eight points, coach Matt LaFleur made a decision that will be second guessed. He sent the field-goal unit onto the field with three timeouts instead of trying to go for the potential game-tying touchdown. Mason Crosby made the short kick, but LaFleur’s decision effectively gave Tom Brady the football needing only a first down to seal it. The Bucs got their first down, and Rodgers never got the ball back.
Tom terrific on third down
Brady, the ageless wonder, was especially dominant on third downs. Brady was money on third down, featuring some of the game's biggest plays. Like a 52-yard bomb down the middle of the field to Chris Godwin against safety Darnell Savage Jr. on third-and-9, setting up a Leonard Fournette 20-yard touchdown run one play later. Brady set the tone early, converting all three of his third-down passes for 56 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive.
Rodgers’ 33 completions were the most in Packers playoff history, but that’s a record the offense likely did not want to set. The Packers' offense has been best this season when balanced, but it was anything but Sunday. Rodgers finished 33-of-48 for 346 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 101.6 rating, certainly a respectable final line. But the Packers only ran 16 times for 67 yards, effectively taken out of the ground game by the Bucs defensive line and an 18-point deficit early in the third quarter. If the Packers were cooking a recipe for success against this Bucs defense, that wasn’t it.
Offensive line crumbles
It took three games, but the Packers finally felt the loss of All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari. After putting up 35 points against the Chicago Bears and 32 last week against the Los Angeles Rams without Bakhtiari, a Packers offensive line that has been able to overcome almost all season crumbled again against the Bucs. The Packers allowed Rodgers to be sacked five times, one more than Week 6. The Bucs hit Rodgers eight times. The constant pressure from the edges took the Packers out of their offense, and proved once again that defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is the kryptonite for LaFleur’s offense this season.
Alexander ends his drought
For all his coverage ability, Jaire Alexander has not made a career of taking away the football. He had just one interception in the first 17.5 games this season, counting playoffs. That came in Week 1 at the Minnesota Vikings. Opposing quarterbacks don’t target Alexander frequently, so the second-team All-Pro cornerback has fewer opportunities. Still, it’s been a trend. Alexander had only four interceptions in his first three seasons. He picked a good time to end his drought, finishing consecutive drives in the second half with picks against Brady. One interception caromed off Mike Evans hands, and Alexander showed catlike reflexes to stop and catch the deflection behind him. Alexander caught a jump ball from Brady on the right sideline for his second pick.