GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers got everything he wanted out of this 2020 season, except a win on Sunday.
"I'm just pretty gutted," Rodgers said after a devastating 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers in his first NFC title game at Lambeau Field. "We had a lot of chances. Overall, just pretty gutted."
Rodgers' emotions were very real and very raw, yet as he always does, he articulated them quite well.
He talked about his appreciation for his teammates, and how the Packers gave themselves the best opportunity they could ask for, earning the only playoff bye in the NFC and getting to play at home in January.
But none of it was enough, and for a while the presumptive league MVP will be thinking about three straight possessions in the fourth quarter of a one-score game that couldn't produce the touchdown the Packers so desperately needed.
"It's a grind just to get to this point," he said. "It makes the finality of it all kind of hit you like a ton of bricks. That's why it's a gutting feeling in your stomach."
The loss is Rodgers' fourth straight in an NFC Championship, making him 1-4 after winning his first one 10 years ago. The defeats have taken on all shapes and sizes now, from the collapse at Seattle, to two blowouts on the road, to Sunday's game full of regrets in front of a pandemic-limited home crowd.
Asked whether a loss like this will potentially haunt him the rest of his career as he continues to seek a second Super Bowl, Rodgers didn't go that far. But he didn't downplay it, either.
"I don't know about haunted. That word doesn't really fit in my vocabulary I think," he said. "This one definitely stings and is going to for a long time, especially the way it played out and the chances we had and the opportunities we had to seize that game at various points.
"This definitely hurts, but I don't believe in games haunting me. It won't haunt me, it's just going to hurt for a while."
He acknowledged, as he does every time a season ends, how there's so much uncertainty ahead with players needing new contracts, and not knowing what the locker room will look like later in 2021. The only constant in the NFL is change.
He noted there's some uncertainty about his own future, with the Packers having spent a first-round draft pick on his possible successor last spring. But Head Coach Matt LaFleur is of no mind to move on and made it very clear he wants Rodgers as his QB again next season.
"I sure as hell hope so," LaFleur said. "I mean, the guy's the MVP of this league. He's the heart and soul of our football team. So, hell yeah, he better be back here.
"He's our leader. His voice carries a lot of weight in that locker room and just, I feel for him. Him being in this situation and for us not to get it done, man it hurts."
The pain came through in several of LaFleur's comments as he rehashed many of his own decisions throughout the game.
He lamented lacking a commitment to the running game on two goal-to-go series that ended in field goals, and on the two fourth-quarter three-and-outs following interceptions by Green Bay's defense.
"I put that on myself, just not calling the right plays," he said. "The stuff we did so well all season long, we kind of got away from it, in the second half, especially that fourth quarter. We just got out of our offense, and that's on me."
Lambeau Field hosted the NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021.
He'll likely wonder about not going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line down eight points, and counting on his defense to stop Tom Brady again after it had allowed him just three points over a span of four possessions.
It was a lot to ask, given the effort already expended to make the comeback from an 18-point deficit possible.
"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.
"That's a tough pill to swallow when 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."
LaFleur's first two seasons in Green Bay have been loaded with success, and his offense and guidance got Rodgers back to MVP form. None of that can be overlooked.
But the Packers were planning on playing one more game this season. They had everything lined up just the way they wanted and needed, yet it still didn't work out.
It's all difficult, but perhaps nothing moreso than "the abruptness," as Rodgers put it.
"It's definitely sudden."