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Packers come up short in NFC title game yet again, falling 31-26 to the Buccaneers

Tom Brady threw three second-half interceptions, but it wasn’t enough as the Packers couldn’t capitalize on those turnovers the way Tampa Bay did. They squander a golden opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl.

NFL: NFC Championship Game-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers
The Packers had chances in the second half to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl and couldn’t find the plays when they needed it.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Another playoff game, another game the Green Bay Packers defense gives up over 30. Another NFC Championship Game, another head-scratching offensive performance. Three second-half interceptions got the Packers back into it, but Mike Pettine’s unit gave up 28 first-half points including a mind-numbing 39-yard score going into the half. Aaron Rodgers and the offense couldn’t take advantage of a pair of Jaire Alexander interceptions and their best chance to go to the Super Bowl since 2010 went begging at the hands of the greatest winner the NFL has ever seen, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held off the Packers 31-26 in the NFC Championship Game.

Aaron Rodgers called Week 6 an anomaly. The offensive line played its worst game of the year, Rodgers turned it over twice, and Tom Brady made some unbelievable throws into coverage to beat the Packers 38-10. Maybe it was an anomaly, but Tampa Bay followed much the same script at Lambeau Field on a 28-degree day that was supposed to cater to the home team. After all, this is what Rodgers had asked for: a home game for the chance to go to the Super Bowl.

The Bucs came out playing charmed football, converting their first five third downs including several 3rd-and-longs. Like a basketball team converting an unsustainable number of threes, the Packers would expect the offense to come back down to Earth. The problem was, when they did, Green Bay’s offense couldn’t quite answer, at least in the second half.

After Brady threw a beautiful touch pass on a slot fade to Mike Evans to start the scoring, a third-down score no less, the Packers responded with a score of their own, converting a 3rd-and-15 to Allen Lazard before Rodgers found Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 50-yard score to even the game.

But the charmed existence didn’t flip, at least not it the first half. Brady found Chris Godwin on 3rd-and-9 for 52 yards despite Darnell Savage tipping the pass away. The ball fell helplessly into Godwin’s arms and the game began to feel like one of those games, the kind Packers fans are all too familiar with in the postseason.

A Leonard Fournette 20-yard touchdown scamper evinced images of the NFC Championship Game last year, one where the Packers defense looked outmanned, outmatched, and out-efforted.

Still, Rodgers and this No. 1 offense had a chance to answer and let it go begging, a sentence that describes this game for the Packers as a whole. Davante Adams, a first-team All-Pro putting together the best receiver season in team history, dropped a would-be touchdown and Green Bay had to settle for a field goal to make the game 14-10 instead of tying it at 14.

These are the moments the Packers couldn’t afford to miss, the small mistakes the Buccaneers made fewer of, at least in the impactful, fateful moments of the game. To wit, a dropped interception by Will Redmond late in the first half set up the backbreaking touchdown to Scotty Miller to give the Patriots Buccaneers a 21-10 halftime lead.

All the former NFL defensive backs on Twitter spent the 20 minutes of halftime trying to figure out what coverage the Packers were in and why. Inscrutable calls and unthinkable execution marked much of the day for the Packers defense, although they played much better in the second half.

Two possessions doomed the Packers. With just over two minutes left in the first half, the Packers got the ball back with a chance to take the lead. Rodgers threw an interception up the seam to Sean Murphy-Bunting on a play that should have seen the defensive back called for holding. That led to the unthinkable finish with the Miller touchdown.

On the next drive, to open the second half with a chance to cut the game to one score, Aaron Jones fumbled for the second time, this timing losing it to the Buccaneers and setting up another Tampa touchdown, pushing the lead to 28-10, a margin that would ultimately hold.

This game felt like a mix of the 2011 and 2014 playoff disappointments. That 15-1 season ended up a trio of fumbles and half a dozen drops. Drops, whether it was Redmond’s chance to scuttle a touchdown drive, Equanimeous St. Brown’s drop on the two-point conversion in the second half, or Adams’ in the end zone, cost the Packers more than enough points to cover the margin of victory.

On the other hand, and much like ‘14, the defense came up with three enormous second-half turnovers, and the Packers managed to do precisely zero with those gifts. In fact, the Packers offense with Rodgers managed two three-and-outs off Jaire Alexander’s pair of picks, each with a chance to take the lead.

The defense could have gotten a stop late to give the ball back to Rodgers, but he also had a pair of chances to go take the lead, plus the field goal drive where LaFleur inexplicably decided to kick instead of going for it on 4th-and-goal. We’ve seen these kinds of decisions come back to bite the Packers in the playoffs before.

The Packers’ lack of help for Rodgers can’t bear the blame of this loss. MVS caught four balls for 115 yards and a 50-yard touchdown to even the score at 7 in the first half. Allen Lazard added three catches for 62 yards and Big Bob Tonyan caught a touchdown. If anything, Green Bay didn’t get Adams involved enough in the offense outside of the three-play sequence that included the Adams drop in the first half.

In a game where you force 3 interceptions off Brady, Rodgers goes for 342 and three touchdowns, and MVS has the game of his life, we would expect Green Bay to come away easily victorious. Green Bay out-gained, out-possessed-and out-first-downed the Bucs by considerable margins, but still lost.

This game leaves the Packers with important questions to answer. Kevin King’s time in Green Bay will almost certainly end, but the team has no clear succession plan. Aaron Jones looks to be pricing himself out of town as well, and Pettine may well have coached his last game on LaFleur’s staff. Offensively, this team looks good enough to beat most defenses, but they didn’t execute well enough in the most important game of the season to win.

What makes this loss so disappointing for the Packers is over Rodgers’ career, too often they weren’t the best team. There was no shame in losing because Green Bay’s squad wasn’t good enough. They were this season but didn’t play well enough in the biggest game of the year. This was a golden opportunity to put the green and gold back in the mix for the Lombardi trophy. Given how few chances Rodgers may have left, this one could do down as the most disheartening of all the playoff exits.

They had their chance. They were good enough right up until they needed to be their best. This isn’t a loss that requires deep soul searching or a roster revamp in the way last season’s looked. But it asks difficult questions about the mental makeup of this team, their ability to respond to adversity and play well in clutch spots. Until they do it, those questions over Matt LaFleur and his team will linger.