Congrats on losing by five, Matt, at 31-26, rather than eight. Rodgers never took another snap, never got another chance. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play the Super Bowl in their own stadium. It must feel chilly in Green Bay.
“I couldn’t believe it, honestly,” Tampa Bay linebacker Shaq Barrett said.
Why can’t Barrett believe it? Because he plays for a coach who, with 13 seconds left in the first half, yanked his punt team off the field on fourth down with the ball at the opponent’s 45-yard line.
“We didn’t come here to not take chances to win the game,” Buccaneers Coach Bruce Arians said.
There was almost too much to digest in the NFC championship game at frosty Lambeau Field, so perhaps it can’t be distilled to this one decision by a coach who is two years younger than the quarterback he gave the ball back to. But the result, and its impact on the legacies of two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, is striking: Brady is 43 and now headed to his 10th Super Bowl, his first with his handpicked new team. Rodgers is 37 and was denied his second trip with the only team he has ever known.
“I’m pretty gutted,” Rodgers said.
And so Rodgers must stew, and Brady will celebrate. He was and will forever be a New England Patriot because 20 years and six Super Bowl titles don’t just evaporate with newfound success elsewhere. But Sunday’s result provides further fodder to one of the best barroom sports debates out there: Brady or Belichick?
Bill Belichick, Brady’s old coach, was home for these playoffs. Brady is in the thick of them, still alive. One game, one season, doesn’t provide the answer to the question of who was more responsible for New England’s success all those years. But if this is a meaningful debate, Brady isn’t done providing arguments on his behalf. This is not Willie Mays with the New York Mets, a coda that lessens a career rather than enhances it. Brady can still sling it, and — more importantly — can still win.
“It’s been a great journey thus far,” he said via Zoom from Green Bay. “We put the work in, and a lot of guys just embraced everything when [Arians] got here last year. There was a lot of great things that were happening. Lot of great young players. I just made the decision, and love coming to work every day with these guys.”
Think about the outfit Brady joined in the first offseason. Many of the weapons, of course, were in place, and in that way Brady chose wisely. Even with former quarterback Jameis Winston handing out interceptions like party favors — 30 in all in 2019 — the Buccaneers led the NFL in passing yards and were third in scoring. There was material with which to work, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as receivers leading the way.
But in choosing the Bucs, he also chose a franchise that has spent nearly the entirety of this century — if not its entire existence — in the quarterbacking wilderness. Tampa Bay’s only Super Bowl title-winning team was built on its Warren Sapp-John Lynch defense. That Super Bowl, which came after the 2002 season, also represented the Bucs’ most recent postseason victory before this year. Brady, in that time, now has 30 playoff wins.
Since that last Tampa Bay postseason win, the Buccaneers have had seasons in which their primary quarterback was Bruce Gradkowski or Chris Simms, Jeff Garcia or Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon or Josh McCown. They are exhibit infinity that instability at quarterback is directly linked to limited potential.
And then Brady arrived. It wasn’t perfect at first. But now, the Bucs haven’t lost since November.
Brady’s play is of course responsible for that push. In the previous six games, plus the first half Sunday, Brady had thrown 18 touchdown passes and just one interception. His numbers Sunday could have been gaudier as well because in the first half alone — a first half in which he went 13 for 22 for 202 yards and two scores — his receivers dropped no fewer than four balls.
“It’s water off his back,” Arians said. “It’s just, ‘Hey, let’s go get it.’ Nothing fazes him.”
But Brady also added something else Tampa Bay sorely lacked: Swagger. Not fabricated, but based on actual accomplishments. Few figures in sports can step into a room full of people they don’t know and say, “This is how it’s done.” Brady can do that, because, as Scotty Miller said, “He’s been here before.”
Not just once. More than anybody in history.
“The belief he gave everyone in this organization that this could be done,” Arians said in the on-field interview with Fox. “It only took one man.”
And so, to the decisions that defined the game. The first came with Tampa Bay leading 14-10 late in the first half. The Bucs faced fourth and four at the Green Bay 45. Arians sent out the punt team, but there was a timeout. He stewed a bit.
“I wanted to come out of there with points,” he said.
Code: He bet on his offense. He bet on his quarterback. He did what LaFleur wouldn’t do two quarters later. The result: A first down on a Brady-to-Leonard Fournette pass, then a touchdown on Brady’s beautiful throw to Miller, who somehow was in single coverage against Green Bay’s Kevin King.
“I liked the call,” Brady said.
Now, to Rodgers and LaFleur. To be fair, LaFleur was sitting on three timeouts plus the two-minute warning. Green Bay’s defense picked off Brady on three consecutive drives in the second half. Even with a touchdown on fourth and goal from the 8, the Packers still needed a two-point conversion to tie.
And yet, Aaron Rodgers is LaFleur’s quarterback, and the alternative is to give the ball back to — who, again? Oh, right. Tom $&%#@! Brady — with two minutes and change to kill the game.
“That wasn’t my decision,” Rodgers said, ruefully and diplomatically. He finished the game in a pompom hat and mask, rather than in a helmet.
And so we’re left with this: Tom Brady, back in the Super Bowl, for the fourth time in six years. He is now 33-11 in the playoffs, a .750 winning percentage, essentially cranking out 12-4 seasons in January and February. He is 43, and daring coaches to give him the ball to finish out the game.
Matt LaFleur, join the club. He could have trusted Rodgers for one play and one touchdown. Instead he trusted his defense against Brady. The offseason is here. The offseason is long. The offseason is hard.