Packers believe crucial penalty on cornerback Kevin King was a 'bad call'
GREEN BAY - Jaire Alexander spread both arms like an airplane, signaling incomplete. The Green Bay Packers cornerback bobbed his head, gleeful as he extended one hand to smack Kevin King a high five.
Behind him, Packers defenders were starting to come to the realization their season was over. Linebacker Ty Summers opened his palms to the sky, pleading with back judge Perry Paganelli. Chandon Sullivan clasped his helmet with both hands in shock. King kept looking up at the scoreboard inside Lambeau Field, searching, praying for a flaw.
With less than 2 minutes left in the NFC championship game, jubilation turned to mourning faster than Aaron Jones cuts through the open field. On third-and-4, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady lofted a pass to receiver Tyler Johnson. The Bucs rookie was breaking open over the middle, slicing a slant route to separate from King.
Caught flat footed, King grabbed. It was all he could do to keep up.
Johnson pumped his fist when he saw the yellow flag arrive a breathless second or two late, the knockout punch in the most bitter of endings to a Packers season that fell short of Super Bowl LV with a stunning, 31-26 loss.
“I think it was a bad call,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I think there were a few opportunities for some plays down the field for us that weren’t called. I was surprised that call in that situation was made.”
It was a killer penalty, the death knell of a season. Make that third-down stop, and the Packers not only keep momentum alive in their desperate comeback attempt from an 18-point deficit in the early third quarter, but they have reason to believe. A Bucs punt would have given the Packers offense possession with about 90 seconds left and one timeout left, Rodgers in the driver’s seat for a potential game-winning touchdown.
The Packers would have liked those odds.
They had already strung together a pair of touchdown drives in the third quarter, salvaging what briefly looked like a third straight blowout loss in an NFC championship game. Unlike 2017 in Atlanta and 2020 in San Francisco, this game had a fourth quarter. To leave this bid for the Super Bowl in the hands of officials only made the loss harder to digest.
“I was pretty surprised,” coach Matt LaFleur said, “just based on how the game went. I mean, I felt like there were multiple plays throughout the course of the game that they were letting us play. I haven’t seen a replay, but from what I was told, there was a tug there. Whether the ball was catchable or not, I mean, I think that always goes into it.
“Bottom line, the official made the call, and that’s what it is. We have to live with that. There’s no use to crying about it now, or complaining about it now. What’s done is done, and we’ve got to move on.”
The Packers certainly had their opportunities in an NFC championship game more reminiscent of the missed chances against Seattle in 2015 than the domination of Atlanta and San Francisco. King routinely found himself in the middle of big plays, and not in a good way.
Throughout his career, the cornerback who is set to enter free agency this spring has oscillated between giving up highlights and making them. He can be a playmaker in the Packers secondary, a poster boy for right place, right time. Too often King has been on the wrong end.
That’s where he found himself Sunday. The Bucs' opening drive ended with Brady arching a 15-yard touchdown pass over King to star receiver Mike Evans. King badly mistimed Brady’s throw, jumping too early to deflect the football before it arrived.
A more critical error came on the final snap of the first half. With eight seconds left and the Bucs at the 39-yard line, King squatted on underneath coverage, expecting the Bucs would try a short pass to improve their field-goal range. Instead, Brady went for it all, connecting with Scotty Miller deep for a touchdown as the second-quarter clock clicked down to one second.
King was not made available on a Zoom call after the game.
When the Packers opened the third quarter with an Aaron Jones fumble deep in their territory, leading to a Bucs touchdown and 18-point deficit, they had dug an insurmountable hole.
“That was a tough pill to swallow,” LaFleur said of the touchdown to end the half. “We regrouped at halftime, and we talked about it, said, ‘Hey man, we can’t let this destroy the second half, too.’ And then for us to come out in the second half, you know, have that play on third down when we get the fumble … that’s about as bad of a sequence as you can possibly have in a critical game.”
Without that sequence, maybe Sunday’s championship game doesn’t come down to a penalty. The Packers outplayed the Bucs in the second half. They gave themselves a chance to win in the end.
For a few moments, they expected to get one more chance. There was celebration on the field, an incomplete pass from the game’s greatest quarterback breathing life into a near-miraculous comeback.
Then the Packers saw the yellow.
“I felt like it was great coverage,” Kenny Clark said, “and he tripped on his foot. I seen it, and I thought they just got their feet tangled up. Referees were letting everybody play all game. They were tripping up our receivers. We were doing that. They made a call in a critical situation that changed the game. I felt like the momentum was on our side, and we did a really good job.
“It is what it is. We can’t blame it on that. We’re bigger than that. We’ve got to just be better, try not to be in that situation at the end of the game by starting faster and being better situationally.”