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Packers’ blue chippers, not the front office, cost them a shot at the Super Bowl

The players and media will be quick to blame Brian Gutekunst for the failings of the NFC Championship Game, but Green Bay’s best and highest-paid players didn’t play well enough. That’s what cost them.

NFL: NFC Championship Game-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers
Aaron Jones had more fumbles than impact plays on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Fifty-three players arrived at Lambeau Field Sunday good enough to win the conference title. With the No. 1 offense all season, even in a league that includes Patrick Mahomes, the Green Bay Packers boasted the most impenetrable offensive line in football, along with skill players that included a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher and the best receiver in the Year of Our Lord 2020. On defense, the Packers earned three interceptions and brought one of the more impressive four-man pressure groups in the league. They were good enough to go to the Super Bowl. They didn’t play well enough.

We know the second part — because they lost — but that happened because many of Green Bay’s best players, the ones who carried them for the last two seasons, didn’t come through when the team needed them the most.

It’s not because of who they drafted in the first round or the second round. Some rookie contributors may have helped provide some cushion, but in order to win or have a chance to a Super Bowl, the team’s horses have to come through.

Look at what the Chiefs did Sunday night: Tyreek Hill couldn’t be covered. Ditto for Travis Kelce. And Mahomes was Mahomes. Meanwhile, in Green Bay, Aaron Jones fumbled twice, one that set up a touchdown for the Bucs, and dropped at least one pass. On the other passes he did catch, he managed to do nothing with them, finishing with a meager 7 yards on 4 catches.

Does Michael Pittman Jr. change that? To wit, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard combined for 7 catches for 179 yards and a touchdown. Robert Tonyan added another score. They have enough secondary pieces.

In fact, Green Bay’s second-round pick, AJ Dillon, nearly outproduced Jones in just four touches, including a fingertip grab to pick up 13 yards in his only target. In 10 touches, Jones managed 34 yards. Dillon put up 30 yards in 4.

Jones is a star. You need your stars in these moments. It goes without saying the fan vitriol directed at Jones should be condemned at every turn. No one has the right to speak to anyone the way too many people online Tweeted and commented on Jones during and after the game last night.

That can be true and we can also say he played arguably his worst game as a Packer in the most momentous moment of what could be a short career in Green Bay. That fumble cost Green Bay seven points in a game they lost by five.

Speaking of costing the team points, Rodgers’ No. 1 target, the WR1 of the NFL in 2020, dropped a would-be touchdown with the game still very much in the balance. It was a back-shoulder throw we’ve seen Rodgers fit in to Davante Adams dozens of times. While the throw forced Adams to contort his body, we’ve seen that catch made consistently. Troy Aikman suggested on the broadcast the Packers hit that 99 times out of 100.

The one time they missed cost the team four points in a game they lost by five. There’s your margin. Green Bay’s two best skill players cost the team 11 points. And it’s worse than that.

Rodgers, the soon-to-be league MVP, played his part as well. With a chance to take the lead going into halftime and the ball first in the third quarter, the 37-year-old tried to fit a ball in to Allen Lazard with Sean Murphy-Bunting draped in coverage. The officials could have called holding, but they didn’t all day (except of course at the end of the game). It was an enormous risk in that situation and one the Bucs turned into a touchdown of their own.

So the three biggest stars (apologies to David Bakhtiari who wasn’t on the field with injury) made mistakes that cost Green Bay 17 points. Add in the ineptitude of two three-and-outs with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter after getting back-to-back interceptions, and the truth is staring us in the face: for whatever Rodgers melodrama we want to conjure after the game, he and his best teammates didn’t play well enough to win.

Of course, we have no idea how the game plays out differently if any of these scenarios merely never happen, but we know they did. We know what they cost this team.

And we can’t forget about the defense. Jaire Alexander locked down his side. He’s a true superstar and all the noise about Adrian Amos not being a playmaker looks laughable in hindsight. Darnell Savage forced one of those interceptions on a slot blitz and he made a terrific play to knock the ball away from Chris Godwin on a 52-yard heave Godwin caught off the bounce in the unluckiest way for Green Bay.

But where were the Smith Bros? For the second consecutive NFC Championship Game, the high-priced sack artists couldn’t create any kind of consistent havoc the way Tampa Bay’s front did. Tristan Wirfs may be a stud, but he’s a rookie and Donovan Smith is nothing to write home about, yet they found few paths to the quarterback on the edge. Even when Smith rushed inside against Aaron Stinnie, a former UDFA, he couldn’t disrupt Brady consistently.

The pressure they did create helped scuttle drives. Preston Smith forced a punt by sniffing out a screen, and Za’Darius created a pressure on third down, but while their counterparts ran laps in the Packers backfield, Brady mostly got what he wanted in terms of time in the pocket.

A first-round linebacker doesn’t change those plays, and neither does a first-round defensive linemen. Green Bay defended the run well, giving up 76 yards on 24 carries.

More depth would help. That’s why they drafted Rashan Gary (who was held on the 3rd down play late in the game with no call). Kevin King struggled mightily and likely will not be back in 2021. Frankly, it’s likely that neither Jones or Preston Smith will either. The Packers already drafted their replacements and each look to be quality players.

Green Bay built for its future in the draft because it believed it already had a team good enough to win a Super Bowl. Over the course of the last two years, they proved Brian Gutekunst right. If the players are upset about losing, they can look in the mirror, because the blue chip players, not the lack of rookies or free agent signings, are what prevented this team from going to the Super Bowl.