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Tom Oates: Matt LaFleur's questionable call proves regrettable as Packers fall short of Super Bowl
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Tom Oates: Matt LaFleur's questionable call proves regrettable as Packers fall short of Super Bowl

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Packers head coach Matt LaFleur reacts after a pass interference call was made against Green Bay during the second half of the NFC Championship Sunday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

GREEN BAY — It was an unforgettable moment in Matt LaFleur's brief tenure as coach of the Green Bay Packers.

During a game last season, LaFleur's first, field microphones caught him yelling into the headset of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, "All gas, no (expletive) brakes." The statement quickly became a mantra for the Packers under LaFleur.

Until Sunday.

That's when LaFleur got off the gas. At the most critical moment of the Packers' 2020 season, LaFleur decided to slam on the brakes. It was a call he would regret because the Packers never got a chance to get back on the gas in their biggest game of the year, the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field.

With Green Bay trailing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by eight points and facing a fourth-and-goal at the 8-yard line with a shade over 2 minutes to play, LaFLeur made a fateful call, one that didn't necessarily determine the outcome in the Packers' bitterly disappointing, 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers but one that cost them any chance at completing a comeback from 18 points down and sending the game into overtime.

The setting was this: The Packers hadn't come close to scoring on three Aaron Rodgers passes from the 8 and LaFleur had three timeouts plus the 2-minute warning in his pocket. He also had a defense that had played fairly well in the second half, giving up only 10 points and taking the ball away three times. Armed with that information, LaFleur made the curious, against-the-grain decision to have Mason Crosby cut the lead to five on a short field goal with 2:05 to play in hopes of getting the ball back for a chance at a go-ahead touchdown.

Problem was, the defense never got the ball back and the Packers lost in the NFC title game for the second year in a row and the fourth time since the Super Bowl-winning 2010 season. That left LaFleur with some explaining to do.

"Anytime it doesn’t work out, you always regret it, right?" he said. "It was just the circumstances of having three shots and coming away with no yards and knowing that you not only need the touchdown but you need the two-point (conversion to tie). The way I was looking at it was, we essentially had four timeouts with the 2-minute warning. We knew we needed to get a stop and I thought we were going to have a stop there at the end, but we got called for (pass interference) and it didn’t work out. I think anytime something doesn’t work out, do you regret it? Sure, but we’re always going to be process-driven here and the way our defense was battling, the way our defense was playing, it felt like it was the right decision to do. It just didn’t work out.”

Surprisingly, the analytics didn't murder LaFleur for the decision. In fact, the analytics called it about 50-50 to go for a score or kick a field goal.

But analytics can never understand the nuances of a situation, and what LaFleur did was take the ball out of the hands of Rodgers, the NFL's presumptive MVP, and put his trust in a defense that hadn't consistently delivered all season.

That doesn't sound like 50-50 to me. It sounds like LaFleur made the wrong call. Even more surprising, he has always said he doesn't rely on analytics too much.

Rodgers said he called the third-and-8 play thinking he would get another chance on fourth down. He never got that chance. Still, he didn't dispute LaFleur's decision, though he didn't exactly give it a ringing endorsement either.

"That wasn't my decision, but understand the thinking, above 2 minutes, with all of our timeouts," Rodgers said. "But, yeah, it wasn't my decision."

One thing that could have affected the situation was LaFleur's earlier decision to go for two points after the Packers cut the lead to 28-23 in the final minute of the third quarter. Most coaches don't think about going for two until the fourth quarter, so it was too early to start looking at the scoreboard.

It became an even poorer decision when Rodgers hit wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown squarely in the hands and he couldn't hang on. Had the Packers trailed only 31-24 on fourth down at the 8, LaFleur might have made a different call.

Of course, those decisions weren't the only reasons the Packers lost. There were many other plays that could have changed the game.

The NFL's best red-zone team stalled too many times near the goal line. The Packers could have stuck with the run more after cornerback Jaire Alexander's two fourth-quarter interceptions instead of winging it around and getting no points either time. They could have put more pressure on quarterback Tom Brady and covered the Buccaneers receivers more closely. They also were hit with that late pass-interference penalty on cornerback Kevin King even though the referees had let the players go at it tooth-and-nail for the first 58 minutes.

Still, it would have made sense at the end to put the outcome in the hands of Rodgers instead of a suspect defense. After all, he had completely outplayed Brady to that point.

"Matty allowed me to call that third-down play," Rodgers said. "If I had known we were going to kick it, I would have maybe gone with some sort of crossing routes maybe there instead. But I thought we maybe were going to have four chances.”

But LaFleur never gave him that chance and that's when the Packers' season hit the brakes.


Photos: Packers' Super Bowl hopes dashed as Bucs take NFC title

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