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NFL: NFC Championship Game-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-U

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Buccaneers at Packers recap: Super Bowl bound after thrilling 31-26 victory in NFC Championship Game

Tampa Bay had to fight its tail off at Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon, but it came away 31-26 winners to clinch a spot in the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2002 season.

When the Buccaneers signed Tom Brady last spring and then continued to put together a star-studded roster as the year went on, there was a lot of talk about what they would look like on the field vs. what they looked like on paper. Most agreed that Tampa Bay was a playoff team, but a strong majority seemed to feel that it was a team that had early postseason exit written all over it.

Well, on Sunday afternoon, the Brady-led Bucs were one of four teams in the NFL still playing ball. They were in Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game against the No. 1-seeded Packers, playing for the right to represent the NFC in two weeks when the Super Bowl is played in Tampa at Raymond James Stadium.

Tampa Bay beat Green Bay 38-10 at home back in Week 6, but everyone knew coming into Sunday that playing at Lambeau Field in January with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line would be a completely different animal. The Bucs beat the Washington Football Team and the Saints to get to this point, while the Packers had a first-round bye before beating the Rams to get to Sunday.

The Bucs were already underdogs early last week when the matchup was set, but they were perhaps even bigger underdogs come gameday. Antonio Brown couldn’t suit up due to a knee injury, plus Antoine Winfield Jr. was a late scratch due to an ankle injury he picked up in practice this past week. The Packers were officially three-point favorites, with ESPN’s FPI giving them a 53.2% chance to win the game and spoil the Bucs’ chances of being the first team to play for the Lombardi Trophy in its home stadium.

Thanks to exceptional third-down efficiency and big plays, Tampa Bay took a 21-10 lead into halftime and extended it to 28-10 early in the third quarter. But from there, the Packers wouldn’t go quietly. They got within 28-23 late, but failed to take advantage of turnovers and got burned by a questionable decision by Matt LaFleur. After one final drive, the Bucs hung on for a 31-26 win, clinching a spot in the Super Bowl, which they’ll host at Raymond James Stadium in two weeks.

Game Recap

The Packers won the toss and deferred, giving the ball to the Bucs to start the game. After Jaydon Mickens returned the opening kickoff to the 34-yard line, Tom Brady and the offense went to work. Leonard Fournette picked up three yards on both of his first two carries to set up a 3rd & 4, which Brady converted with a 27-yard pass to Mike Evans down to the Packers’ 33-yard line. The drive nearly stalled there, with Fournette getting one yard on first down before dropping a second-down pass to bring up 3rd & 9. But Brady connected with Chris Godwin for 14 yards and another first down, getting inside the red zone to the 18. The Bucs followed that same formula on the next set of downs, with Fournette getting three on first down before another pass went off of his hands to bring up 3rd & long. Yet again, Tampa Bay converted. Brady found Evans for a 15-yard touchdown to cap a fantastic opening drive that gave the visitors an early 7-0 lead.

After a Bradley Pinion touchback on the ensuing kickoff, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense took the field looking to respond to Tampa Bay’s early score. Jamaal Williams got the first carry of the drive, getting three yards before getting popped by Lavonte David. Rodgers then connected with Marcedes Lewis for 14 yards and a first down on the next play, getting to the 42-yard line. Devin White stood up Aaron Jones on the next play, then Jason Pierre-Paul stopped Jones for no gain on a second-down catch to bring up 3rd & 9. Shaquil Barrett announced his presence at that point, with good coverage downfield allowing him to sack Rodgers for a loss of eight, forcing a punt. It was a huge early stop for the Tampa Bay defense, especially after the opening-drive touchdown.

After JK Scott’s punt was downed at the Bucs’ 27, Ronald Jones II started the next possession with a four-yard run. Brady hit Cameron Brate for a five-yard pickup on the next play, setting up 3rd & 1. Tampa Bay converted its fourth straight third down from there, with Jones getting a couple of yards to the 38-yard line. A couple of negative plays brought up a 3rd & 14 for the Bucs, and that meant another conversion. Godwin took a quick pass from Brady and fought his way forward for 15 yards to keep the drive alive. A couple of incomplete passes brought up another 3rd & long, and this time the Packer defense finally got off the field. Kenny Clark beat Aaron Stinnie for a sack, bringing Pinion out for Tampa Bay’s first punt of the afternoon. His 46-yarder set Green Bay up at its own 10 after a fair catch. With 2:49 to go in the opening quarter, the Bucs’ lead was at 7-0.

Jamel Dean stopped Robert Tonyan for a gain of two on first down of the Packers’ second drive, then Pierre-Paul sacked Rodgers at the 5-yard line to back things up to a 3rd & 15. Tampa Bay’s defense failed to take advantage of the momentum, though, with Allen Lazard beating Sean Murphy-Bunting for a 23-yard gain on a comeback. Davante Adams finally got in on the action on the next play, catching a short pass and taking it 15 yards to the 43-yard line. Rodgers then found Tonyan for another five yards, bringing the first quarter to a close with Tampa Bay leading 7-0, though the Packers were near midfield.

Aaron Jones picked up two yards to open the second quarter, setting his offense up with a manageable 3rd & 3. Instead of looking for the first down, the Packers struck for a touchdown. Marquez Valdes-Scantling beat Carlton Davis for a 50-yard touchdown and with Mason Crosby’s PAT, it was a 7-7 game.

Mickens returned the ensuing kickoff to the 27 and the Bucs nearly went three-and-out due to a short run and a drop by Godwin. But on 3rd & 9, Godwin made a phenomenal 52-yard catch to keep things going.

On the next play, Fournette got stood up at the line of scrimmage before bouncing outside, cutting and putting a spin move on a defender, and fighting his way into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown. With Ryan Succop’s PAT, the Bucs were back on top by a score of 14-7.

Barrett nearly sacked Rodgers for a second time on the first play of the next drive, but Green Bay’s No. 12 threw his way out of it. That brought up a 2nd & 10 before Rodgers moved the chains with a 12-yard pass to Valdes-Scantling. Adams followed by catching a four-yard pass to the 41-yard line, then Williams broke through for a 12-yard run across midfield. The Packers continued to drive from there, with a five-yard pass to Adams and a 12-yard run by Jones to the Tampa Bay 30. A couple of plays later, Jones caught a six-yard pass and had the ball knocked loose by Jordan Whitehead, but the Packers were able to recover to keep possession inside the 20. Two more Jones carries set up a 3rd & 2 at the 10, then he got four more to establish a goal-to-go situation. Before the next snap, Green Bay called its first timeout with 5:13 to go in the first half.

Adams dropped a touchdown on 1st & Goal, then Lavonte David broke up a second-down pass to bring up a huge 3rd & Goal with just over five minutes left in the second quarter. Rodgers then looked Adams’ way for the third play in a row, but the star receiver couldn’t get two feet down. That was massive for the Buccaneer defense, as it brought Crosby out for a 24-yard field goal. The lead was cut to 14-10, but holding Green Bay to three after it got down to the 6-yard line is a near-impossible task. With the field goal, Tampa Bay would have a chance to go down the field and make it a two-score game before halftime.

Starting their next possession at the 25-yard line with five minutes to work with, Brady and the offense had a great chance to keep things rolling. Fournette caught a seven-yard pass on first down and Jones got one yard on second, bringing up a quick 3rd & 2. The Bucs converted yet another third down, keeping the drive alive as Brady found Godwin for a gain of 19. Things stalled at the Green Bay 48, though, with an incomplete pass on first down and a one-yard catch by Fournette bringing up 3rd & 9 before an incomplete pass intended for Brate. The Bucs had missed a chance to extend their lead before halftime and even worse, they were kicking the ball back to Rodgers with a chance to double up and swing the game in the home team’s favor.

Pinion’s punt set the Packers up at their own 12-yard line with 2:10 to go. Green Bay had two timeouts and the two-minute warning to work with, getting a chance to take a lead into halftime before getting the ball again coming out of it. Mike Edwards and Steve McLendon stopped Williams for no gain on first down, bringing it to the two-minute warning before a 2nd & 10.

After the break, Rodgers checked down to Williams for a gain of four, with David and Ndamukong Suh coming up with the stop. Tampa Bay’s defense couldn’t get off the field on 3rd & 6, though, with Rodgers hitting Lazard for a 23-yard gain to the 40. But the defense managed to step up from there. Pierre-Paul sacked Rodgers for a second time on the next play, then Sean Murphy-Bunting came up with his third interception in as many playoff games to get the ball back to Brady.

The Bucs didn’t look too dangerous offensively after Murphy-Bunting’s turnover, with a six-yard pass to Fournette and two incompletions bringing up 4th & 4. But after a timeout, Bruce Arians decided to go for it with only 13 seconds left on the clock. Tampa Bay converted, with another six-yard pass to Fournette getting the ball to the Packers’ 39 with six seconds to go. Instead of trying a long field goal, the Bucs went for broke. Brady unloaded a 39-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller, extending the lead to 21-10 seemingly out of nowhere.

From there, only a kickoff stood between the Bucs and the locker room. Nothing big happened on the kick, sending the game into halftime with Tampa Bay on top by a score of 21-10.

After a touchback on the opening kickoff of the second half, the Packers took the field down by 11. Rodgers found Jones for a five-yard pickup on first down before a second-down incompletion, then the Tampa Bay defense came up with another game-changing play. Jones caught a short pass and Whitehead came up and put his helmet on the ball, forcing his second fumble of the game. This time, Devin White was there to recover it and return it to the Green Bay 8-yard line. That set the Bucs up with a chance to extend the lead to 28-10 early in the third quarter.

And that’s exactly what Tampa Bay did. Off of play-action, Brady found Brate for a touchdown and with Succop’s PAT, it was a 28-10 ball game.

Down 18 with plenty of time to go, the Packers confidently went back to work. Williams got seven yards on two carries, then Adams caught a 10-yard pass before Valdes-Scantling struck for a 24-yard gain. A couple of plays later, Rodgers avoided a sack and hit Lazard for a 16-yard gain that got the ball inside the 10 to the 8-yard line. One play later, Rodgers and Tonyan connected for a touchdown, getting Green Bay within 28-17 with 9:28 left in the third quarter.

The Bucs started their next drive on the ground, as Fournette got five tough yards on first down before getting nine more around the edge on second. Brady missed Godwin deep on the next play, though Godwin appeared to get interfered with. The no-call presumably made up for the missed holding call on Murphy-Bunting’s earlier interception, so there couldn’t be too much to complain about in terms of officiating there. The Packers kept the momentum in their favor on the next play, with Adrian Amos intercepting a deep Brady pass at the Packers’ 32. It was also at this time that it was announced that Jordan Whitehead (shoulder) was ruled OUT for the rest of the game, meaning the Bucs would be without their two starting safeties the rest of the way. That made for a difficult few minutes for Tampa Bay.

The Bucs’ downward spiral continued on the Packers’ next possession, with Rodgers picking apart the defense with short throws to get the ball across midfield into Tampa Bay territory as the clock ticked under six minutes in the third quarter. The quick-hitting plays continued from there, with Green Bay driving to the Bucs’ 24 before facing a key 3rd & 2. Williams picked it up, catching a short pass and taking it 11 yards to the 13. A couple of plays later, Carlton Davis was flagged for a hit to the head, setting up a 1st & Goal. The Buccaneer defense then stuffed one run from there and forced a second-down throwaway, but the Packers found the end zone on third down. Rodgers hit Adams for a two-yard score, cutting even further into what was once an 18-point lead for Tampa Bay. An unsuccessful two-point try kept it at a five-point lead for the Bucs, but the third quarter was all Packers after the early turnover and score.

Mickens continued to have a strong day on his next return, bringing it 43 yards to the Bucs’ 45 with 17 seconds left in the third quarter. Jones picked up two yards on first down to bring us to the end of the third quarter, with the Bucs leading 28-23.

The Bucs opened the fourth quarter with Evans dropping a deep ball to bring up a crucial 3rd & 8 at the 47-yard line. Like he did last week against the Saints, rookie Tyler Johnson stepped up and made a huge third-down catch. A 16-yarder moved the sticks and got the ball to Green Bay’s 37. Fournette picked up five yards on the first down after that, then the Packers were called for too many men on the field to give the Bucs another first down at the 27. Two plays later, things turned back to the Packers. A pass went off of Evans’ hands inside the 10-yard line, leading to a Jaire Alexander interception. That gave the ball back to Green Bay at its own 19.

The Bucs nearly got to Rodgers on first down at the 19, but he was able to get his throw off for an incompletion. Williams got five yards on second down to get to 3rd & 5, but then the Tampa Bay defense came up with a huge stop. Barrett got to Rodgers for the second time, forcing a punt and keeping the lead in the Bucs’ favor with 10:39 to play.

After a seven-yard return on the punt by Mickens, Tampa Bay’s offense went from its own 38, hoping to burn some clock while also getting some separation with a score. Jones continued to get bottled up by the Green Bay defense, though, getting just two yards on first down. A six-yard pass from Brady to Brate got the Bucs to 3rd & 2, then things went south yet again. Fournette didn’t pick up the blitz, Brady threw a prayer off of his back foot and Alexander came up with another interception. That was three straight Brady interceptions, putting the pressure back on Tampa Bay’s defense.

Barrett sacked Rodgers for a third time to start the next drive, then an incomplete deep ball brought up 3rd & 11 for Green Bay. Rodgers looked for Lazard on third down, but Murphy-Bunting was solid in coverage and the ball fell incomplete. That was yet another huge stop for Tampa Bay’s defense, saving Brady from a couple of huge mistakes.

The Bucs got the ball back at their own 28 with 8:10 to go, desperately needing to find some sort of offensive spark to close out the game. Jones got three yards on the first play of the possession, then Brady connected with Godwin for an 11-yard pickup to the 42-yard line. Jones got dropped for a loss of one on the next play, but then a wild Rob Gronkowski appeared. He took a screen pass 29 yards to the Packers’ 30, getting a big-time first down. But the Bucs stalled there, with a two-yard Jones run and an incomplete pass setting up 3rd & 8. Brady quickly gave up on the third-down play, throwing at Godwin’s feet. That brought Succop out for a 46-yard field goal attempt, which he nailed to give the Bucs an eight-point lead with 4:42 to go.

On the ensuing kickoff, Williams got a great return, picking up 30 yards to the 34. The Packers went from there with 4:33 to go, needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to bring up the possibility of overtime. A.J. Dillon ran for nine yards on first down to start the drive, then Valdes-Scantling struck again. He caught a 29-yard pass to the Tampa Bay 28 as the clock neared the three-minute mark. Rodgers missed him on the next play, but found Adams for nine yards on second down to bring up 3rd & 1. Another 11 yards for Adams on the next play got Green Bay to the 8 as the two-minute warning neared. Rodgers missed on back-to-back plays from there, bringing up a huge 3rd & Goal with 2:15 to go. He then missed Adams on third down, which led to a Crosby field goal. The Packers got within 31-26, betting on their defense to get the ball back.

With 2:05 to go, Green Bay had the two-minute warning and three timeouts to use as the Bucs needed to simply kill the clock in order to get to the Super Bowl.

The Bucs decided to throw on first down, with Evans coming up with a nine-yard catch to bring up the two-minute warning. Out of the break, Tampa Bay picked up a first down thanks to an intentional penalty on Green Bay’s part. That saved a timeout, but the Packers then called their first after a two-yard Fournette run brought the clock down to 1:51. Fournette got four more yards on second down, getting the clock to 1:46 and bringing up a 3rd & 4 as the Packers called timeout No. 2. On third down, Tyler Johnson drew a defensive pass interference call on Kevin King, giving Tampa Bay a huge first down.

After another Fournette run, the Packers called their last timeout with 1:32 to go. He got nothing on the next play, bringing up 3rd & 5 with 48 seconds left. To seal the ball game and clinch their spot in the Super Bowl, the Bucs called an end-around to Godwin, who picked up the first down.

That was that, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are Super Bowl bound. And they’ll play it in their home stadium.

Quick Notes & Stats

  • With Sunday’s victory, the Buccaneers will now be the first team in NFL history to play for a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
  • Tom Brady was a bit erratic in the second half, but he finished the day 20-of-36 for 280 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He connected with seven different receivers in the win.
  • Chris Godwin was the key for Tampa Bay, catching five passes for 110 yards to lead the way. Other receivers stepped up as well, with Mike Evans catching three passes for 51 yards and a touchdown, Scotty Miller bringing in two passes for 36 yards and a score, and Cameron Brate hauling in three catches for 19 yards and a touchdown of his own.
  • Tampa Bay had to fight hard in the run game and didn’t have a ton of success, though Leonard Fournette got some tough yards. He ran for 46 and a touchdown on 12 carries, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
  • Devin White was once again all over the field in this one, racking up 15 tackles (nine solo) and a fumble recovery.
  • Shaquil Barrett saved his best game of the season for the NFC Championship Game, as he sacked Aaron Rodgers three times and totaled four quarterback hits.
  • With his three sacks, Barrett joined Warren Sapp (at Green Bay on Jan. 4, 1998) as the only players in team history with three or more in a playoff game.
  • Jason Pierre-Paul came up huge as well, sacking Rodgers twice.
  • Before exiting with an injury, Jordan Whitehead forced two fumbles, with one recovered by White. That set up a touchdown for Tampa Bay, giving it a 28-10 lead early in the third quarter.
  • Sean Murphy-Bunting intercepted his third pass in as many playoff games, becoming the fourth player in the Super Bowl era to intercept three passes in each of his first three postseason games.
  • Ryan Succop’s 46-yard field goal late in the game was massive, as were his four successful extra point attempts.
  • The Bucs went 9-of-14 on third downs while also going 1-of-1 on fourth down.
  • Tampa Bay’s defense totaled five sacks and two turnovers in the game, coming up with big plays all day despite the efficiency that Rodgers was playing with.
  • Green Bay held possession for 34:37 to Tampa Bay’s 25:23.
  • Jaydon Mickens’ 121 return yards in the game set a new franchise record.

The Buccaneers will now return home to play for the Lombardi Trophy at Raymond James Stadium, hosting the winner of Sunday night’s AFC Championship Game between the Chiefs and Bills. The game will be played on Feb. 7, with kickoff set for 6:30 p.m.

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