The Packers had their chances.
Now, the painful question that follows is obvious: How many more chances does Green Bay have with quarterback Aaron Rodgers following a 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers in the NFC championship game?
Rodgers didn’t take long to add to that narrative in his postgame press conference with a Favre-like response about his future.
Aaron Rodgers: “A lot of guys futures, they’re uncertain, myself included.”
— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) January 25, 2021
Considering Rodgers has two years remaining on his contract, those comments are going to power the hot-take factory for the entire offseason. The Packers have made back-to-back NFC championship runs after 13-win seasons with coach Matt LaFleur, but it still feels as though there’s nowhere to go but down.
That feeling starts with the second-guess of the offseason. Why did LaFleur elect to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Bucs’ 8 with 2:15 remaining and his team trailing by eight?
Rodgers put his head down. He looked away from the camera. It was all second-guessing from there after Green Bay’s fourth NFC championship game loss in the last 10 seasons.
Could Rodgers have run it in on an eventual third-down incompletion before the field goal? Why did the officials throw a late flag on Green Bay cornerback Kevin King that sealed the game on the following drive? Was this worse than the collapse in Seattle in the 2014 NFC championship game?
The first two have easy answers. Rodgers gets the ball closer to the goal line, but the Packers still have to go for it on fourth down. King held on the play in a game where the officials let the defensive backs play. Time will tell on the third question, but there is no question this one should sting just as much as that fourth-quarter breakdown.
This year, Green Bay had a last-minute collapse in the first half instead. Rodgers threw an interception to Sean Murphy-Bunting with 34 seconds remaining. Tom Brady turned that into a 39-yard TD pass to Scotty Miller with one second left for a 21-10 Tampa Bay lead.
The Buccaneers took a 28-10 lead to start the third quarter after an Aaron Jones fumble and another Brady TD pass. It would require a Rodgers magic act to get the Pack back at that point.
And still, they had their chances.
Green Bay intercepted Brady three times in the second half. The Packers scored a touchdown after the first one, but the offense managed six plays for minus-5 yards after the other two picks. Those three-and-outs led to a Tampa Bay field goal, which set up the Packers’ final possession.
You can’t blame Rodgers. He finished 33 of 48 for 346 yards, with three TDs and an interception, without the benefit of the running game that led to a victory over the Rams in the NFC divisional playoffs. Green Bay managed just 16 carries for 67 yards, and Jones (chest injury) sat out most of the second half.
That fourth-down field goal will haunt LaFleur, too. Rodgers is a good bet to win his third NFL MVP award after passing for 4,299 yards, 48 TDs and five interceptions in the regular season, and yet, arguably the best QB in the NFL in 2020 didn’t get a chance to take the last shot.
Instead, Rodgers watched Brady — the greatest quarterback of all time — reach his 10th Super Bowl with the help of that late flag on King. Brady won the legacy game between the two — a game where the Packers had home-field advantage and were favored to win.
You make your own breaks, and the Packers created their own heartbreaking scenario in this loss.
What does all that mean for Rodgers, who’ll turn 38 next December? Everything will be second-guessed heading into the 2021 season. Who will the Packers draft in the first round this year after spending a first-round pick on quarterback Jordan Love last year? Will Green Bay be aggressive enough in free agency? Will defensive coordinator Mike Pettine return?
None of those questions are easy right now.
There is also the uncomfortable scenario where Rodgers finishes his career in another uniform. Green Bay has been down that road before with a Hall of Fame quarterback in Brett Favre — who took the Packers to two Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s.
That is the uncertain future that was borne out of missed opportunities Sunday, and Rodgers has every right to be frustrated at this point in his career.
He doesn’t have too many chances remaining, not like this one anyway.
It’s on the Packers to take advantage of what’s left.