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By settling for field goal, Packers pay ultimate compliment to Bucs’ defense

Some late stinginess by Todd Bowles’ unit helps seal 31-26 triumph in NFC Championship Game.
Bucs outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) sacks Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12)  during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game Sunday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.
Bucs outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) sacks Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game Sunday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 25
Updated Jan. 25

His decision will be dissected and disparaged in Wisconsin as long as Vince Lombardi remains en vogue.

At the most critical juncture of his coaching career, Matt LaFleur froze like the tundra, Green Bay fans will insist. The second-year Packers coach’s epitaph might include his decision to try a field goal on fourth and goal from the Bucs 8-yard line with the Packers trailing by eight, 31-23, with barely more than two minutes to play Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.

“So the way I was looking at it was,” LaFleur said, “we essentially had four timeouts with the two-minute warning, and we knew we needed to get a stop. … We’re always going to be process-driven here, and the way our defense was battling … we felt like it was the right decision to do.”

In lieu of giving likely league MVP Aaron Rodgers another shot at the end zone, he took three meaningless points.

And LaFleur’s decision may have been the ultimate compliment to Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ unit, which sacked Rodgers five times (three by outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett) and intercepted him once in the 31-26 triumph.

“I can’t say enough about (the defense),” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said.

“They’ve been great in the fourth quarter all year, and we got some great stops. Took a couple of chances on offense and tried to get more points, and it didn’t work out, but (the defense) came back and got the ball right back for us.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (90) celebrates his sack during the second quarter of the NFC Championship playoff football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Green Bay.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul (90) celebrates his sack during the second quarter of the NFC Championship playoff football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Green Bay. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

For all its hiccups during the 19-game grind that has led to the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 in Tampa, Bowles’ unit in the last two weeks has developed a hardness reminiscent of the Bucs’ last Super Bowl-qualifying defense, in the 2002 season. A week after intercepting the Saints’ Drew Brees three times, these Bucs flustered Rodgers and Co. on a cold day in Green Bay (29 degrees at kickoff) before arguably the Packers’ most raucous crowd of the season (announced paid attendance: 7,772).

The Packers averaged 5.5 yards per play, nearly a yard shy of their season average (6.3). Their previously daunting run game had only 67 yards, a yard shy of their season low. Perhaps most important, the Bucs forced them into three-and-outs following each of Tom Brady’s two fourth-quarter interceptions, essentially preserving the outcome.

This was despite starting free safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (ankle) missing the game and strong safety Jordan Whitehead being sidelined early in the game by a shoulder injury.

“It tells you something special about this defense,” said veteran outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, who had two sacks.

“We closed the game out, Tom (Brady) closed the game out, and that was it. Don’t get me wrong, Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback, a phenomenal quarterback. … The defense just showed up like we showed up last year, this year and the whole year.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.