This article is part of our NFL Observations series.
The Packers-Bucs was a great game for 58 minutes, thanks in large part to the lack of penalties. Rarely does a standalone game fly by so watchably. Even though I was rooting for the Packers, I didn’t mind that they missed the slight hold on Sean Murphy-Bunting‘s late first-half interception of Aaron Rodgers. Of course, that pick (with the game 14-10) led to Tom Brady‘s TD pass to Scott Miller on a blown coverage a couple plays later, but missing the call was a sin of omission (not the much graver commission), and it was the Packers own fault it led to a TD.
Unfortunately, the refs didn’t return the favor at the end of the game with the Bucs running out the clock. On 3rd-down with nearly two minutes left, Tom Brady floated a ball toward Tyler Johnson that sailed out of his reach. Great, Aaron Rodgers would get the ball back, down five, for a potential game-winning drive to take his team to the Super Bowl against a tough defense that had sacked him five times already. But a very late flag came in, and on replay, it showed that Kevin King had in fact grabbed Johnson’s jersey and slowed him down.
It’s a tough spot for the refs because by rule it’s interference, and we can’t know whether Johnson would have caught it but for the grab. But I’d say at least 30 percent of plays (and probably more) where there’s a defensed pass have some kind of technical interference, a hand check, a grab around the waist or a small push that are routinely ignored. Pass interference has always been a judgment call, an “I know it when I see it” thing, and therefore the precedent set earlier in the game is relevant. In other words there is no consistent standard (which is fine because if you try to legislate one with specific criteria, you end up with the catch rule and games turning on the technicalities rather than the spirit of it.) So I won’t say it wasn’t interference – it was – but in the context of this particular game, they should have let it go and not deprived us of a career-defining drive for Rodgers.
And then there was Matt LaFleur’s decision to kick the field goal from the eight-yard line, down eight with two minutes and three timeouts left. Initially, I agreed with most people that it was a cowardly decision, but the math might in fact be on LaFleur’s side.
Let’s go through an oversimplified/estimated rundown of the probabilities. The field-goal is probably 95 percent. Then you have to have a three-and-out from the Bucs, which happens roughly 33 percent of the time (with generic teams.) So they’re at 32 percent. After which, they needed to score a TD from about 70 yards out with roughly 1:40 left on the clock. Let’s say that’s 25 percent. Now you’re down to eight percent.
Had the Packers gone for it, they’d need an eight-yard TD (40 percent), a two-point conversion (50 percent), and to stop the Bucs from scoring with two minutes and three timeouts left (40 percent). That also comes out to eight percent. But they’d also have had to win in overtime, so it’s four percent. But even if you failed to score (60 percent), you could still force a three-and out (25 percent), get the ball back with better field position to score the TD (30 percent), make the two point conversion (50 percent) and win in overtime (50 percent) for a total of just over one percent. That puts you at about five percent. (My probabilities are only estimates.)
I don’t think the math (even if you refined the inputs) is perfect for two reasons: (1) Whenever a decision is close, always do the bold thing – courage is contagious, and it’s a better message, all things being equal; and (2) These were not generic teams. The game had a total of 57, the Packers offense was the best in the league (especially in the red zone), and the Bucs offense was top-five. In this case, you might want to rely on Rodgers to execute the eight-yard play and give your defense a chance to fail once or twice and still get a stop against Tom Brady.
- Rodgers played well overall. He took five sacks, and threw an acceptable pick (on a hold) with not enough time left in the half for it to hurt him (unless the defense egregiously blew a coverage, which it did.) He also missed a wide-open Allen Lazard for a TD, instead forcing the ball to a covered Davante Adams. Otherwise, he made all the throws, including a would-be TD to Lazard who wasn’t looking, many of which were under duress. But he had one gigantic error, not scrambling with a lot of green in front of him third-and-goal from the eight with two mintues left. Worst case scenario, it’s fourth and short, and LaFleur goes for it, and best case Rodgers get into the end zone.
- The Aaron Jones injury hurt. While he fumbled twice on big hits to the ball, and both Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillion ran well, he’s a key weapon in the passing game and their most explosive rusher.
- I know the Packers secondary receivers aren’t great, but Marquez Valdes-Scantling played well, hauling in a long TD and fighting for extra yards. Davante Adams (15-9-67-1) showed his limitations. He dropped a tough catch TD that he normally hangs onto, but more importantly, he was unable to gain meaningful yards after the catch or generate big plays. Adams had a monster year against weak defenses, but he’s no Tyreek Hill.
- Equanimeous St. Brown‘s two-point conversion drop on a slightly tipped pass was bad. The tip changed its trajectory slightly, but not as much as the drop changed the trajectory of the game.
- Tom Brady played well enough. Much of his yardage was on a few plays, including an amazing catch on a jump ball by Chris Godwin and the blown-coverage TD to Miller. But he hit that throw to Miller, gave Godwin the chance to make the play and also should have had another big play to Mike Evans that Evans dropped. Moreover, one of his three picks was on third-and-long while under pressure, i.e., it was just a punt, and at least gave his receiver a chance to convert. Another interception was off Evans’ hands, though the throw was too high. Brady had a third pick that was poor, and he also missed an open Godwin on a would-be key third-down conversion. But he’s also going to his absurd 10th Super Bowl, and as one of my Twitter followers pointed out, has tied Drew Brees and Rodgers with one NFC Championship win.
- Leonard Fournette had a couple drops, but also one of the best playoff TD runs since Beastquake.
- Jason Pierre-Paul had two sacks, five tackles and numerous pressures. He was everywhere, and his sack in the second quarter precipitated the Rodgers force (and pick) which led to the Miller touchdown. He’s a Hall of Fame-level defensive end, good against the run and pass. The Giants never should have let him go.
- After spotting the Bills a 9-0 lead, the Chiefs outscored them 38-15, and that includes a garbage time TD and FG, i.e., there are no would-have, could-have, should-haves with this game.
- Tyreek Hill (11-9-172-0) and Travis Kelce (15-13-118-2) dominated. Some people prefer the technicians like Adams, Michael Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins, but this game was a good illustration of why I would take Hill by a wide margin.
- Patrick Mahomes was almost perfect, but when he tried to scramble, you could tell his was still affected by his toe. This could be a bigger concern against Tampa’s pass rush in the Super Bowl.
- Josh Allen put up big fantasy numbers and threw only one pick, but the Chiefs dropped at least two or three more. He reminds me of peak Cam Newton (who was a very good player), but he’s not Rodgers or Mahomes.
- The Packers and Chiefs would have made for a fun Super Bowl, but it’s hard to beat Brady vs. Mahomes.