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Packers full of regrets as Super Bowl slips away

Big mistakes followed by missed opportunities produce another loss in NFC title game

RB Aaron Jones loses a fumble in the third quarter of the Packers' 31-26 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.
RB Aaron Jones loses a fumble in the third quarter of the Packers' 31-26 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.

GREEN BAY – A lot went wrong, and then the Packers had a lot of chances to make it right.

In the end they gave themselves too much to overcome and didn't cash in when the opportunities were there, suffering a crushing 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers in the NFC title game on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

"I'm kind of at a loss for words right now," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said after a second straight season ended on the cusp of the Super Bowl, this one at home. "It hurts right now. I hurt for everybody involved."

The list of regrets is long. A nightmare sequence at the end of the first half and start of the second. Then after a rally, multiple drives in the fourth quarter down one score that came up empty, followed by questions about a fourth-down decision and a defensive penalty that sealed the Packers' fate.

"This one does sting," LaFleur continued. "It's going to take a long time to get over this one."

The events that put the Packers in a huge hole were totally avoidable. Trailing 14-10 late in the first half, Aaron Rodgers was intercepted by Sean Murphy-Bunting near midfield with 28 seconds left.

After a fourth-down conversion kept Tampa Bay's offense on the field with less than 10 seconds to go, cornerback Kevin King was burned in man coverage by speedy receiver Scotty Miller for a 39-yard touchdown with one second on the clock.

The Packers then started the third quarter with a fumble by running back Aaron Jones on a third-down crossing route, and Bucs linebacker Devin White scooped it up and returned it to the Green Bay 8-yard line. Jones was injured and exited the game, and one play later, Tom Brady's TD pass to tight end Cameron Brate had Tampa Bay ahead, 28-10.

"You just can't do that stuff," LaFleur said of what amounted to two touchdowns allowed in less than 75 seconds of game clock, and putting the blame on the coaching staff for the wrong defensive coverage call at the end of the first half. "That's inexcusable. That should not have happened.

"That was a tough pill to swallow. That was about as bad of a sequence as you could have in a critical game, obviously."

The Packers battled back with touchdowns on their next two drives, sandwiched around an Adrian Amos interception, to make it 28-23 heading into the fourth quarter.

But when Jaire Alexander got another interception of Brady to thwart a Tampa Bay scoring drive, the offense went three-and-out, allowing Shaq Barrett's third sack of Rodgers. A second Alexander pick preceded another three-and-out, with the Bucs' fifth sack of the game. Two opportunities lost.

"We had some chances," Rodgers said. "Had the ball there with all the momentum. Just kind of needed one first down to get going, and didn't get it, which is disappointing."

A Buccaneers field goal made it 31-23 and then Green Bay's offense finally got moving again on a 29-yard completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who four catches for 115 yards, including a 50-yard TD in the first half.

But then came another stall at the worst possible time, with three incomplete passes on first-and-goal from the 8. With 2:09 left and the Packers possessing all three timeouts, LaFleur surprised many by deciding to kick the field goal and see if the defense could get the ball back.

"I was looking at we essentially had four timeouts with the two-minute warning," explained LaFleur, who also said going nowhere from the 8 on three plays, and needing the two-point conversion with the touchdown, factored into the decision. "Anytime something doesn't work out, do you regret it? Sure."

Rodgers (33-of-48, 346 yards, three TDs, one INT, 101.6 rating) said he had called the third-down play, which resulted in a scramble and incomplete pass, and suggested he might have called something different had he known LaFleur wasn't going to go for it.

"That wasn't my decision," Rodgers said. "I understand the thinking above two minutes with all our timeouts, but it wasn't my decision."

Lambeau Field hosted the NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021.

It might have worked and given Rodgers one more chance needing only a touchdown (and no PAT) to win had the officials continued to hold their flags on their hips. But cornerback Kevin King, who had allowed two TDs including the deep one to Miller, was called for defensive pass interference on a third-down incomplete pass with a little over a minute and a half left.

It was the only penalty for holding or interference called in the defensive secondary all game despite a lot of physical play against receivers.

"I think it was a bad call. I think there were a few opportunities for some plays down the field for us that weren't called," said Rodgers, referring in part to his interception at the end of the first half when it appeared Murphy-Bunting grabbed Allen Lazard before the throw.

"Just surprised that call, in that situation, was made. We get the ball back with probably 1:35 and a timeout with a chance to win the game, go to the Super Bowl. Didn't look like it was even catchable, so yeah, I think it was a bad call."

Added LaFleur, who was plenty upset with the officials at several moments throughout the game: "I was pretty surprised (at the call) just based on how the game went. They were letting us play. The bottom line is the official made the call. That's what it is and we have to live with that. There's no use crying about it now or complaining about it now. What's done is done."

Unfortunately, so is the Packers' season, after the Buccaneers drained the rest of the clock to earn their first trip to the Super Bowl in 18 years, and in Brady's first year in Tampa Bay. Brady (20-of-36, 180 yards, three TDs, three INTs, 73.8 rating) will appear in his 10th Super Bowl.

Meanwhile the Packers' Super Bowl drought is now 10 full seasons, which have seen four NFC Championship losses in that span.

LaFleur credited his players for their resilience and the comeback in a tough situation, but that doesn't make the result any less painful.

"That's a special locker room," he said. "I love those guys, love everything they bring. I really hurt for those guys, and hurt for our fans."