For the first time in NFL history, a team will play the Super Bowl in its home stadium. Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are heading to Super Bowl LV at their own Raymond James Stadium, as they staved off Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, 31-26, on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game. Having taken a 28-10 lead in the third quarter, the Bucs withstood a Packers surge and hung on to reach the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Bucs are back in the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2002 season, when they won their only Super Bowl, while Brady will return to the big game for the 10th time.
1) New team, new conference, new city, same result. Tom Brady is going back to the Super Bowl. TB12 will play in his 10th Super Bowl after helping guide the Buccaneers to a road win in Lambeau Field over MVP favorite Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The 43-year-old QB made plays early, particularly on third downs, dropping dimes and stepping into rifle shots over the middle. Brady tossed three TDs and 12 first downs to move the chains in several high-leverage situations. He finished with 280 yards, but could have earned more if it weren't for several Bucs drops. Brady stubbed his toe in the second half, throwing three interceptions when Tampa could have put the game away, including a pass just high off Mike Evans' fingertips. The Bucs D picked up its QB, however, as Tampa held on for the win. Brady was fearless with downfield shots, attempting nine passes of 20-plus air yards. He was feast or famine on those plays, with all three of his INTs coming on those shots. For all the criticisms of Brady's arm early in the year, the old man proved once again he's still got a rifle and deep touch when given time. Given his age and all the things stacked against him heading into his first season with a new team after 20 years, it's remarkable. For all the superlatives that can be said about Brady, that he's playing for the chance to hoist his seventh Lombardi Trophy is the highest praise that can be said about one of the game's greatest competitors.
2) Aaron Rodgers clawed the Packers back in the game after Green Bay got down 18 points early in the third quarter. Rodgers made a bevy of amazing strikes all game, including an early dime down the sideline to Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 50-yard TD. Rodgers sprayed the ball all over the field, completing 33 of 48 passes for 346 yards and three TDs with an INT. With the Bucs' stifling run defense, it was clear entering the game that Matt LaFleur would lean on his QB. After getting down big, Rodgers marched his team for back-to-back TD drives to pull the Pack within five points before the third quarter was over. Missed opportunities, however, will haunt Green Bay. Two goal-to-go situations will particularly be damaging, as Rodgers threw incomplete six times in scoring position and the Packers settled for field goals (more on that later). The red zone misses were the difference in the game. Also of issue, were back-to-back three-and-outs in the third quarter after Green Bay's defense forced turnovers. Once again, Rodgers and Co. fell short in an NFC Championship Game as the QB missed out on another chance to play in his second Super Bowl.
3) Credit the Tampa Bay defense with dominating up front. Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul were game-changers, screaming around the edge, collapsing the pocket and relentlessly discombobulating Rodgers. Barrett complied three sacks, while JPP took down Rodgers twice. It was the first time all year we've seen a team batter the Packers' O-line. Injuries finally caught up to Green Bay, with the Bucs edge rushers taking advantage of David Bakhtiari's absence. That injury alone could be the reason the Packers are headed home. The Bucs took advantage. Behind the awesome game from the D-line, Devin White and Lavonte David flew to the ball, and the secondary made plays despite dealing with injuries of their own. Jordan Whitehead forced two fumbles before exiting due to injuries, leaving Tampa with two backup safeties in the game. Todd Bowles' young secondary, however, made plays when it was needed. The coverage forced Rodgers to hold the ball on several occasions in the fourth quarter. The Bucs defense also stood tall in the red zone, making game-changing plays in the compressed area. The Bucs might have given up yards, but when Bowles' squad needed to make big plays, it got off the field more than not Sunday afternoon.
4) Bruce Arians' life motto came into play: No risk it, no biscuit. Sitting with a four-point lead with 13 seconds left in the second quarter facing a fourth-and-4 near midfield, Arians could have punted and gone to halftime. Instead, the Bucs took a chance. Turning it over there could have given Rodgers a shot at a Hail Mary. Brady converted on fourth down, but was still out of field-goal range. TB12 then took another shot, hitting Scott Miller for a TD to push the lead to 11 before the break. The sequence stands in stark contrast to the end of the game for the Packers. While Arians trusted his veteran QB to make the right plays, LaFleur twice took the ball out of his future Hall of Famer's hands near the goal line. The most head-scratching decision came when LaFleur inexplicably decided to kick a field goal trailing by eight with just over two minutes left in the game. Predictably, Brady and the Bucs never gave the Packers the ball back. Arians risked it and was rewarded. LaFleur's team settled and lost.
5) You could compile a highlight of just the third-down plays from this game, and it would be an exciting affair. The Bucs came out converting their first five third downs of the game, including a gorgeous tear drop from Brady to Evans for a TD. Tampa converted 9-of-14 third downs on the day. Part of the plethora of third downs came from the struggles on early downs, but Brady made plays early on the key down. Rodgers answered with big plays of his own on third down, including the bomb TD to MVS. The Packers went 8-of-14 on third downs. QBs are judged by how they perform on third downs. With two of the best ever on the field Sunday, it shouldn't be a surprise we were rewarded with some huge plays from both sides on third down. When it came down to it, the Bucs made the biggest third-down stop of the game, keeping Rodgers out of the end zone late.
6) Yet again, the Packers' defense remains an issue. Sunday, it was corner Kevin King, who was questionable entering the game with a back injury, getting torched time and time again. King gave up the first TD, mistiming his jump on a bad undercut. He then got beat deep on the end-of-half score by Miller. D-coordinator Mike Pettine's call on that TD rightly deserves criticism given the time and situation. The Pack D generated just one sack and hit Brady four times. The run D played well for stretches, holding Tampa to 3.2 yards per attempt, but missed tackles were a killer. Forcing three Brady turnovers was key to keeping the Packers in the game, but in the end, Pettine's squad couldn't get the stop it needed. Once again, King was on the radar, getting called for pass interference on a massive third down that allowed the Bucs to ice the rest of the game. After years of taking the heat in Green Bay, could Pettine take the fall for the latest playoff disappointment?
7) The win makes Tampa the first team in NFL history to play a home Super Bowl. It's an amazing accomplishment for a team that looked shaky early in the season. However, like so many of Brady's Patriots teams, they gelled down the stretch and got rolling. A lack of offseason work put the new teammates behind, but TB12 and Co. hit their stride when it mattered. The offense came alive, and the youngsters on defense improved under Bowles. Sunday's win marked the seventh straight for Tampa, including three-straight road wins in the playoffs. For all of Brady's accolades, he'd never played as a wild-card team in the postseason. After those three road wins, now the Bucs get a home Super Bowl against Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champions.