Down 8 points with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, the choice was simple: Give Aaron Rodgers one play to gain 8 yards, or ask your mediocre-to-slightly-above-average-defense to get a stop against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers Offense. For inexplicable reasons, Matt LaFleur chose the latter. Unsurprisingly, the Packers will be at home watching the Super Bowl in two weeks.
It’s hard to understand why this was even a choice in the first place. A field goal didn’t even really help Green Bay in that situation. Had the Packers Defense made a stop, they would have been trailing by 5 and still needed to drive the field for a touchdown anyway, likely with no timeouts. The most damning aspect of LaFleur’s decision, however, was that there was almost no added risk in letting Aaron Rodgers get one more shot at the end zone versus kicking a field goal. In fact, there was more risk in kicking the field goal and taking the chance of not getting the ball back again.
Let’s consider the different possible outcomes had LaFleur given Rodgers 4th down:
Scenario 1 – The Packers go for it and fail to score a touchdown: Okay, that doesn’t change the situation really. The Packers still needed their defense to get an immediate stop (ideally a 3-and-out) and then drive the field for a touchdown, just like they needed to after kicking the field goal. The only difference would have been the need for a TD AND a 2-point conversion.
Scenario 2 – The Packers go for it, score a touchdown, but fail to get the 2-point conversion: In this case, the Packers would have had several options. They could have kicked it away and asked their defense to get a stop (just like they needed to after kicking the field goal anyway). Or, they could have tried to give themselves one more opportunity by attempting an onside kick. Don’t recover the kick? Fine. You still need to get a stop on defense. Most of these scenarios end up with the Packers only needing to drive for a field goal in the closing seconds instead of a touchdown (depending on what would have happened after a failed onside kick).
Scenario 3 – The Packers go for it, score a touchdown, and tie the game with a 2-point conversion: Now we have a new ballgame.
Of those 3 outcomes, only the first scenario would have left Green Bay in a worse situation than kicking the field goal (though not by much). However, the potential reward of tying the game immediately would have been more than worth it.
Too many things had to happen for LaFleur’s decision to kick the field goal to have worked. And his plan was based on the weakest part of the Packers coming up big before all else. I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there saying it made sense for LaFleur to put the game in his defense’s hands because they had played better in the second half. And to be fair, they had played better. Much of the Packers’ success, however, came at the hands of Tom Brady’s self-inflicted interceptions, not necessarily anything they were doing defensively. It’s hard to imagine the possibility for an interception would have presented itself in a run-out-the clock situation. Brady wasn’t going to put the ball in harm’s way.
More importantly, this wasn’t a choice between giving Rodgers an additional chance and asking the Packers Defense to merely prevent Tampa from scoring. This was the choice between giving Rodgers another opportunity and asking the defense to get an IMMEDIATE stop. The Packers had forced just one 3-and-out in 10 previous drives, and their ability to get off the field on 3rd down really wasn’t present for most of the afternoon. That’s putting a lot of faith in a defense that hadn’t quite earned it, and taking the ball out of the hands of your best asset by far.
No, this decision was not the only reason the Packers lost. As is the case with any NFL game, the winner and loser are determined by a multitude of plays and decisions, not just one. That doesn’t excuse this decision, though.
Matt LaFleur has done a great job of attacking the weaknesses of opposing defenses all season. It’s been fun watching his approach on a weekly basis, and he deserves a ton of credit for what he’s done with the Packers in his first two seasons as their head coach. But situational football and decision making in critical moments are still the rulers of the day in the playoffs. And LaFleur’s decision sealed his team’s fate.