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Dougherty: Packers blew their chance after putting themselves in great position for Super Bowl run

The Green Bay Packers shrunk in the moment.

They couldn’t have been set up better for a shot at a fifth Super Bowl title and 14th NFL championship total, what with the NFL’s presumptive MVP at quarterback and the home field advantage for the conference title game.

But the Matt LaFleur-Aaron Rodgers offense that carried the Packers all season failed to measure up when it mattered most in a 31-26 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lambeau Field.

There’s no other way to say it: This goes down as one of the most painful, wasted opportunities in the team’s long history, right there with the big choke in Seattle in the same NFC title game six years ago. It’s a defeat that is sure to weigh heavily on team president Mark Murphy, general manager Brian Gutekunst, LaFleur and Rodgers all offseason not knowing whether they’ll be in this good of a position again in the waning years of the Rodgers era.

The numbers:

Box score | NFL playoffs scoreboard

“I’m just pretty gutted,” Rodgers said after the loss. “It’s a long season, you put so much into it to get to this point, and then the way — we had our chances. Different position than the last couple of these (NFC championship games) where we got blown out, and we have a chance. (The Bucs) went up three scores and we battled back with a couple scores, defense came up with some big turnovers. We had a lot of chances. But overall, just pretty gutted.”

The Packers’ main characters, including LaFleur, were front and center in this defeat. Davante Adams dropped a touchdown pass that cost four points, Rodgers threw an interception that led to one Bucs touchdown and Aaron Jones lost a fumble that led to another.

Then there was LaFleur’s call for a field goal while down eight with barely two minutes left in the game instead of going for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 8. It looked like an easy call from where I sat — a one-score game and he needed a stop either way. Go for the end zone.

But there were plenty of other missed chances too, including two three-and-outs in the fourth quarter after Jaire Alexander interceptions of Brady. Sure, the Packers probably got hosed by the pass-interference call that essentially clinched the game in the final two minutes — it was on the ticky-tack side of things in a game where the refs otherwise let ’em play, and it probably was uncatchable anyway.

But in the end, Brady (73.8 rating, three interceptions) will be playing in his 10th Super Bowl in large part because the Bucs’ talented defense was simply better than the league’s top-scoring offense when it mattered. And that falls mostly on LaFleur and Rodgers even if Rodgers had a good game (101.6 rating, 346 yards passing). Against Bucs coordinator Todd Bowles' fast and physical defense they never got into the pass, run and play-action rhythm that got them to this position in the first place.

“We didn’t do it, and that falls on me,” LaFleur said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow. You’re responsible for everybody in this organization to make sure you’re on your ‘A’ game, and I don’t feel like I was tonight. Pretty disappointed that (I) let a lot of people down.”

With the season ending unexpectedly before the Super Bowl, the Packers now have to quickly switch gears and figure out where to go from here. There will be change in the offseason — there always is, on the roster and perhaps the coaching staff as well.

For starters, LaFleur’s harsh words were ominous for Mike Pettine’s future as defensive coordinator when the head coach recapped the backbreaking 39-yard touchdown that Scotty Miller caught over cornerback Kevin King with a second left in the first half.

Pettine called for man coverage on the play, apparently trying to take away a shorter out pattern that would have allowed to the Bucs to get out of bounds and kick a field goal. But the man call left King vulnerable for a deep shot, and Brady took it and hit it to put the Bucs up 21-10 at the half. That’s the kind of play that loses games.

“Definitely not the right call for the situation,” LaFleur said. “You can’t do stuff like that against a good football team and expect to win. … I blame us as coaches for putting our guys in that situation. That’s inexcusable, that should not have happened. We have to take a look at it and do some self-reflection and try to figure out ways how that can’t happen again.”

Roster change is a constant in this league, and lost revenue from the pandemic will probably lead to more than usual this offseason. The 37-year-old Rodgers even cast doubt about his own future with first-round pick Jordan Love having just wrapped up his rookie year.

“A lot of guys’ futures are uncertain, myself included,” Rodgers said at one point.

But let’s get real. Gutekunst and LaFleur would be insane to move on from Rodgers after the season he just had (he has three years left on his contract).

As long as Rodgers is playing at a level that has him even on the fringe of the MVP conversation, they’re not going to trade him to get Love on the field. He is throwing the ball as well as ever, and his command of LaFleur’s offense makes up for any loss of athleticism because of his age. No matter what happens this offseason, the Packers will be among the favorites in the NFC again next season, and it all starts with Rodgers.

“The guy is the MVP of this league,” LaFleur said when told of Rodgers’ musings. “He’s the heart and soul of our football team. So, hell yeah, he better be back here.”

Things are far less clear with Jones, who is a key playmaker, and Corey Linsley, the first-team All-Pro center, among others. Nothing stays the same in this league, and now it’s Gutekunst season — time to manage his budget and draft picks to put together a roster that can get back to and past the NFC championship game.

But this loss is going to stick with him and everyone else on the football side of the organization for a long time. They had a magical season and the stars were aligned, but then they failed to convert.

Beating the Buccaneers, who are as talented as anybody in the league when looking at both sides of the ball, was never going to be easy. But there’s still no getting around it: The Packers had the chance every team in this league would kill for, and they blew it.

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