Last season, the Packers’ blow-out loss in the NFC championship game largely confirmed that Green Bay wasn’t as good as its record. The result clearly shook the organization and led to plenty of questions about the team’s future—questions that only got more complex when the Packers moved up in the 2020 draft to take Utah State QB Jordan Love. This season shouldn’t have prompted the same type of soul-searching. Though the Packers lost in the NFC championship game again—this time, a more respectable 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers—Green Bay was a legitimately excellent team this year, absolutely earning its 13-3 record, no. 1 seed, and (likely) MVP trophy for Rodgers.
At least, the season wouldn’t have come with questions, except Rodgers gave some rather strange quotes in a postgame press conference that are worth reading closely.
“There’s a lot of unknowns going into this offseason now,” Rodgers said after the loss. “I’m gonna have to take some time away for sure and clear my head and just kind of see what’s going on with everything. But it’s pretty tough right now.” He added more, just to put an exclamation point on his thoughts: “A lot of guys’ futures, they’re uncertain, myself included.”
"There's a lot of unknowns going into this offseason now."— ESPN (@espn) January 25, 2021
Aaron Rodgers postgame: pic.twitter.com/VBGvBsYSCg
If last season’s loss had the Packers questioning their future, this season’s loss appears to have Rodgers questioning his. Rodgers still has three years left on the contract he signed in 2018, and he’s playing some of the best ball of his career as the Green Bay offense has caught fire under second-year coach Matt LaFleur. That Rodgers even felt the need to open this can of worms may simply be a by-product of how demoralizing Sunday’s loss was—but it may also hint at deeper problems. (LaFleur, for his part, said that Rodgers “better be” back next season.)
Rodgers said he had a “gutting feeling” in his stomach after the game, but it wasn’t clear whether he was referring to his entire career or just Sunday’s result. Though the Packers nearly overcame a 28-10 third-quarter deficit, the defeat marked Rodgers’s fourth loss in an NFC championship game, moving his record to 1-4 in such contests. He hasn’t won the conference championship and advanced to the Super Bowl since his first appearance after the 2010 season. It’s been a full—and long—decade since Rodgers has played football on the NFL’s grandest stage.
In fact, the Packers have something of a championship-game curse going. Last season, the Niners embarrassed the Packers, building a 27-0 halftime lead. In the 2016 playoffs, the Falcons had a 31-0 lead by the time the Packers scored their first points in the third quarter. And in the 2014 playoffs, the Packers held a 19-7 lead over the Seahawks when Russell Wilson threw an interception with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, only for Seattle to stage a furious last-minute comeback that culminated in a game-winning overtime touchdown.
This game was another heartbreaker. It came down to the final minutes, and LaFleur will face scrutiny for a decision he made just before the two-minute warning. With 2:09 to go and Green Bay down eight, the Packers faced a do-or-die fourth down at Tampa Bay’s 8-yard line. Going for it would have meant a chance to put the team in the end zone and, if successful, go for a game-tying two-point conversion. Instead, LaFleur opted to kick a field goal and give the ball back to Brady, knowing that to win, his team would need another defensive stop and a touchdown drive.
The NFL has become much more aggressive in fourth-down situations over the past few seasons, but here, LaFleur picked the conservative approach and took the points. A couple of analytics models suggested LaFleur should have gone for it. But it was also not an egregious decision to kick—nowhere near the realm of Mike Vrabel choosing to punt in the wild-card round, for example. If the Packers had gone for it there, they would have needed to not only punch the ball into the end zone from 8 yards out, but also convert a two-point attempt. And that’s just to tie.
Kicking the field goal also involved a narrow path to victory, mostly because giving the ball back to Brady is questionable no matter how many interceptions he’d thrown in this game, but it at least allowed the Packers the chance to get a stop and play for the win. Kicking may have been the wrong call, but it wasn’t out of the realm of understanding. And it’s not why the Packers lost.
Instead, the more questionable decision may have come one play prior, when Rodgers rocketed a pass into tight coverage on third down even though it appeared he had plenty of room to scramble:
Rodgers gotta trust his feet!! Man 2 man- defenders backs are turned.— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) January 24, 2021
He may not have scored, but would’ve gotten close! pic.twitter.com/jbHK0XGPwl
Rodgers may not have found the end zone had he taken off running, but he would have at least made it a much more manageable fourth down. It’s tough to get a touchdown from 8 yards out, but if the Packers had been 3 or so yards away from pay dirt, LaFleur’s decision would have been easy.
Rodgers says "I felt like I had a chance, maybe, to run it" into the end zone on that third down.— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) January 25, 2021
"I thought maybe we were gonna have four chances to go."
For a minute, it looked like LaFleur’s plan might work. The defense forced the Bucs into a third-and-4 at their own 37-yard line and was in position to send the ball back to the Packers offense—that is, until cornerback Kevin King struck. King was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons on Sunday. He gave up two first-half touchdowns in coverage, was run over by Tampa Bay running back Leonard Fournette on another touchdown play, and then on this play, he committed a game-sealing defensive pass interference on Bucs wideout Tyler Johnson. The officials had let the receivers and defensive backs play with plenty of contact downfield all game, and this was a close call, but King clearly grabbed Johnson’s jersey on a crossing route:
Johnson sold the hell out of this, but it’s also a penalty. It may not have been consistent with how the rest of the game was called, but it’s hard to argue with that jersey tug. The automatic first down gave the Bucs the ability to run the clock down to under 10 seconds left and essentially end the game.
Stunningly, this late-game series wasn’t even the worst sequence of the game for the Packers. At the end of the second quarter, Rodgers was driving with a 14-10 deficit and just 34 seconds on the clock. But he was picked off by Sean Murphy-Bunting—on a play that could have been called pass interference—and seconds later, the Buccaneers were back in the end zone to take a 21-10 lead. Then, in the opening seconds of the third quarter, the Packers fumbled, leading to another Bucs touchdown. At 28-10, it felt like the game was already over.
It’s a testament to the Packers that they were able to claw their way back into this game at all. They forced interceptions of Brady on three consecutive drives, and two Green Bay scoring drives in the third quarter were so smooth that a comeback was suddenly within grasp. But just like that, the mistakes piled up again. The Packers went three-and-out on their first two drives in the fourth quarter, thanks in part to constant pressure on Rodgers, who was sacked five times in this game after being sacked just 20 times total in the regular season. Without star left tackle David Bakhtiari, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in late December, Green Bay’s protection was a shadow of what it had been in the regular season, and that derailed the Packers offense at the most crucial time. The rest is history.
Despite the loss, there’s nowhere better for Rodgers to play football next season than Green Bay. The situation is not analogous to the one Brady faced with the Patriots last year. Brady was throwing to a hodgepodge of wide receivers in New England; Rodgers has arguably the best wide receiver in the league in Davante Adams, one of the best pass-blocking offensive lines when healthy, and a well-schemed offense helmed by LaFleur. There was greener grass for Brady last year—but that’s not the place Rodgers is in.
This loss didn’t seem like an inflection point for a franchise that appears—or appeared—primed to retool its excellent roster around Rodgers and pursue the Lombardi Trophy again next season. Even with Love waiting in the wings, the idea that Rodgers could move on from the team at the end of this season seemed impossible. But given his postgame comments, it’s now impossible to ignore.