If you were expecting a heavyweight title fight, you were pleased as punch with the NFC Championship Game that saw Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stave off Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers with a 31-26 victory at Lambeau Field. It was the battle of two future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, and it was the latter drawing first blood for the Buccaneers -- leading a surgical opening drive to take an early lead at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers didn't have his usual proficient opening drive thanks to the defense of Todd Bowles, but he quickly found his mojo when he hit wide receiver Allen Lazard for a 23-yard gain to convert on third-and-15, followed by a 50-yard touchdown bomb to Marquez Valdes-Scantling to tie the ball game and send the message this would likely be a 12-round bout. Brady heard him loud and clear and, despite his receivers having suffered a rash of drops -- four in the first half and six overall, to be specific -- the six-time Super Bowl winner kept on churning. One such drop came by Chris Godwin, only to come down with a circus catch for 52 yards on the very next play, which set up Pro Bowl running back Leonard Fournette revert to the LSU version of himself on a 20-yard touchdown run to retake the lead from Green Bay.
The drama continued from there, and in heaps.
With a chance to tie the contest a second time, Rodgers began to mount his answer but a rare drop by Davante Adams, and in the end zone after embarrassing the defender on a quick out route, left four points on the field and forced the Packers into a field goal instead in the second quarter. An interception by cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting -- his third in the postseason -- killed Rodgers' attempt to either shrink the lead further or to take the lead altogether for the first time in the game, which also happened to be only the sixth INT thrown all season by the frontrunner for league MVP and it led to another Haymaker by Brady; dropping back and foregoing on the field goal to instead throw a 39-yard touchdown to Scott Miller to make it an 11-point lead and stun the Packer faithful in the process.
But wait, there's more.
The Bucs fired right out of the gate in the third quarter with another takeaway, forcing a fumble on running back Aaron Jones that led to a touchdown toss from Brady to tight end Cameron Brate, and it looked like Green Bay would be run out of their own gym. It was quite the contrary though because safety Jaire Alexander used two interceptions to help Rodgers get added possessions to again shrink the lead to as little as five points, serving notice they wouldn't lay down for anyone. Rodgers linked with tight end Robert Tonyan, Jr. to make it an 11-point lead for the Bucs, which moved to eight points before it was again cut to five points -- with kickers Ryan Succop and Mason Crosby getting in the action late in the fourth quarter.
The kick by Crosby will forever be questioned, seeing as it came with the Packers sitting at fourth-and-goal, down by eight points, at home, against Brady and with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Brady went on to eat up the rest of the clock but not before more controversy was infused into an already mercurial clash, when a defensive pass interference call against cornerback Kevin King -- who was bullied all game by Brady's targets -- gave the Bucs a game-sealing conversion on third-and-4 with Green Bay having no timeouts remaining to stop the clock.
And with that, Brady heads home to become the first-ever quarterback to "host" a Super Bowl and is one game away from potentially hoisting a seventh Lombardi trophy, but must first wait to see which AFC team he'll have to go through to achieve that mission.
Why the Buccaneers won
That's what they should call The Big Game in two weeks because defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is a key reason the Bucs were able to not only suffocate Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints one week ago, but the unit also kept Rodgers looking mostly unsettled for large parts of the game. After having not been sacked once in the NFC Divisional Round by the Los Angeles Rams, the Bucs sacked Rodgers five times and landed a total of eight QB hits on the day, but they weren't done there. They intercepted him and jarred a fumble loose from Aaron Jones, leading to more points on the board for Brady and the offense. A usually clean Rodgers got planted often and when he wasn't being taken down, he was being bullied and when he wasn't being bullied, he was (at minimum) often being harassed.
All Brady had to do from there was play elite football, and he did -- until he didn't. The three interceptions gave the Packers momentum that could've swung the outcome of the game, if not for some odd decisions by Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur, along with defensive miscues that only made matters worse. The Packers owned time of possession by nearly 10 football minutes and still never once held the lead on their own field and, unlike the Bucs, they failed to turn consistently turn timely takeaways into points.
That last point brings us full circle to Bowles, who deserves a standing ovation after shutting down two NFL legends in consecutive weeks, and on Sunday he did it despite having lost both of his starting safeties. This proves that while Brady still has the juice to take over games, when Father Time does start peeking a bit, it's also the Bucs defense that must be accounted for because they almost never take one play off.
Why the Packers lost
So, about those "odd" decisions by Rodgers and LaFleur.
Scared money won't make money, and the Packers are the last team you'd think would be afraid to push all of their chips to the middle of the table, having the king of improvisation under center and with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. And yet, there they were, within sniffing distance of the end zone -- down eight points late in the fourth quarter -- and not once, but twice, the world saw Rodgers refuse to take off and scoot into open space for a rushing touchdown. Instead, the plays were abject failures but hey, it's four-down territory, yes? Surely it has to be, in particular with the likes of Brady waiting to get the ball back and the two-minute warning approaching. It was not to be, however, because LaFleur dialed up a field goal that shrunk the lead for five points, and that's where the score stayed for the remainder of the game.
All Brady had to do was eat up clock and get a couple of first-down conversions, and the aforementioned controversial DPI call led to the Bucs landing the one that would become the nail in Green Bay's coffin. With no timeouts left to stop the clock, the game was basically over, and LaFleur will now have to answer -- into the void of eternity -- about his decision to send out Crosby instead of letting Rodgers cook. And, similarly, Rodgers will have to answer about his decision to not cook on the previous couple of plays when he had the chance -- the decisions by both LaFleur and Rodgers helping to end what was an MVP season for the latter and a year stellar enough to land the top seed in the NFC.
When you intercept any QB three times, own time of possession, convert eight of 14 conversions on third down, best the other club in net yards and a number of first downs as well as turnover margin; how on Earth do you lose?
The Packers just showed you.
You won't see this happen often, and it couldn't have come at a worse time for the Packers.
The Bucs had just taken a 14-7 lead and in impressive fashion, but Rodgers was geared up to tie the ball game yet again. He drove Green Bay all the way down the field only to see his No. 1 target -- Davante Adams -- drop what should've been a routine catch in the end zone, leaving four points on the field in the process. The play was a microcosm of things to come, i.e., the inconsistency of play by key players and the inability to avoid shooting themselves in the foot time and again.
Play of the Game
In a game that saw a slew of haymakers thrown, it was what Godwin did in the second quarter that took the cake. Only one play earlier, he dropped a critical pass over the middle, only to see Brady trust him enough to call his number again -- dropping back to heave what would become a circus catch that went on to set up the Fournette touchdown.
This is the kind of catch that gets your team to a Super Bowl, and it did.
"LaFleur with a lot of head scratchers tonight, both play calling and in game decisions." - NFL author Chris B. Brown
A shot at the Lombardi trophy against the class of the AFC is next -- be it the Kansas City Chiefs or the Buffalo Bills -- one of which must now meet the Bucs on Brady's home turf.
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