GREEN BAY – The roar of the Lambeau Field crowd reached its peak after Robert Tonyan crouched down to catch an 8-yard touchdown from Aaron Rodgers early in the third quarter.
As good as it felt to find paydirt, the Packers were going to need one or two big defensive plays to claw back into Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The defense gave them three.
Hope came in the form of defensive backs Adrian Amos and Jaire Alexander intercepting future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady on back-to-back-to-back possessions.
While it wasn't enough as the Packers came up short in their comeback attempt in a disappointing 31-26 defeat, the three takeaways gave Green Bay a chance in the fourth quarter.
"Really felt the game turn around and just our momentum get picked up," said defensive tackle Kenny Clark of the consecutive takeaways. "It felt like we were doing a really good job, third and fourth quarter, getting turnovers, get pressure in his face, making him throw the ball up and our DBs did a great job of getting the ball."
It was the type of response the defense was looking for following a rough start to Sunday's title game, which began with Brady converting three third downs through the air during a nine-play, 66-yard touchdown drive to start the game.
Big plays haunted the Packers in the second quarter with Brady connecting on a 52-yard pass to Chris Godwin on third-and-9, one of seven third downs Tampa Bay converted in the first half. Leonard Fournette scored on a 20-yard TD run on the next play.
Prior to halftime, after it looked like the Buccaneers might punt on fourth-and-4, head coach Bruce Arians opted to put his offense back on the field and Fournette caught a 6-yard pass to move the chains.
On the very next play, Brady lofted a deep ball down the sideline and over the single coverage of Kevin King into the hands of Scotty Miller for a 39-yard touchdown that put Tampa Bay up 21-10 at halftime.
"At the end of the half, that's a play that can't happen," Amos said. "Situations like that, we can't give up a big play. That's one of those plays. We had a couple drives here and there where we couldn't get off the field on third down and it came back to haunt us."
An Aaron Jones fumble on the opening possession of the second half resulted in Tampa Bay taking over at the Green Bay 8, leading to a TD pass to Cam Brate that put the Buccaneers up by three scores.
That's when momentum began to turn. First, Rodgers led an eight-play, 75-yard drive that ended with the TD pass to Tonyan. Then, Amos picked off Brady on an overthrown pass for Mike Evans at the Green Bay 32. Seven minutes and 13 plays later, the Packers exchanged the takeaway for a 2-yard TD pass to Davante Adams.
With the Packers within five entering the fourth quarter, All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander picked off a ball over the fingertips of Evans with 12:34 left in the game and did it again on the next series after a Darnell Savage blitz.
Unfortunately for Green Bay, the offense would go three-and-out on both possessions.
Lambeau Field hosted the NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021.
The Packers and Buccaneers would go on to trade field goals in the final five minutes of the game, with the defense having one more chance at a stop with two minutes remaining.
After two Fournette runs for six yards, the Packers would see their Super Bowl dreams dashed when back judge Perry Paganelli threw a late flag for defensive pass interference on King in coverage of Tyler Johnson.
It was one of six penalties Clete Blakeman's crew called Sunday, with the first coming with 7 minutes, 53 seconds to go in the third quarter.
"I feel like it was great coverage, tripped on his foot," Clark said. "The referees were letting everybody play all game. They were chipping up our receivers. They made a call in a critical situation that changed the game. But I think momentum was on our side. We were doing a really good job.
"But it is what it is. We can't blame it on that. We're bigger than that. Just got to just be better, try not to be in that situation at the end of the game. Just starting faster would be better situationally."
It was a bitter way to end the season for a Green Bay defense that improved as the year went on, finishing inside the top 10 in total defense for the first time since 2010.
"It's kind of surreal. This is not the end that we expected," Amos said. "I think we had full confidence in the locker room we were going to the Super Bowl. It's just a shock because you want to win. It's still hitting us."