The ball was in Aaron Rodgers’s hands – until it wasn’t. It was fourth down, with a little over two minutes left in the NFC Championship game and the Green Bay Packers needed a touchdown and a successful two-point conversion to tie the game. Still, Rodgers will almost certainly be named the 2020 NFL MVP in the coming weeks. If anyone had earned this opportunity, it was Rodgers. Yet, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur decided instead to bring out Mason Crosby for a field goal that cut the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ lead from eight points to five. This gave the ball back to Tom Brady with two minutes left to go. To practically nobody’s surprise, Rodgers did not get the ball back. He instead was relegated to a mere spectator as he watched another Super Bowl dream die. The Buccaneers defeated the Packers 31-26.
Rodgers is an all-time great quarterback. He’s a two-time league MVP – and almost certainly will be named MVP again this year – and has been elected to the Pro Bowl nine times. A list of his statistical accomplishments takes up two whole paragraphs of the three-paragraph introduction to his extremely long Wikipedia page. There you can learn, among many other things, that Rodgers is the fastest player to get to 400 passing touchdowns and has the highest single-season passer rating (122.5 back in 2011). It’s ridiculous to think that his career could be considered a disappointment.
Yet, if you want to be considered in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks, there’s one statistic that trumps them all: Super Bowls, the number you reach and the number you win. Rodgers has gone one-for-one. He led the Green Bay Packers to victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers back in the 2010 Super Bowl. That was only his third year as a starting quarterback and, after being named the game’s MVP, it felt like it would be the first of several championships over his career.
Rodgers has yet to return to the Super Bowl. Following his latest postseason loss, Rodgers is now 1-4 in NFC Championship games. This time around, playing at home in Lambeau Field after one of his most impressive seasons, it looked like he had his best chance at breaking that streak. Instead, the 37-year-old is increasingly in danger of being remembered – unfairly – as an underachiever.
It’s beyond an understatement to say that, of all the players on the roster, the starting quarterback is the most important. In today’s pass-heavy game, it’s nearly impossible to win without a top QB. Still, even though they are the focus, quarterbacks aren’t the totality of the offense: their success is tied to the production of the receivers, running backs and tight ends that surround them – and the ability of the defense to stop the other team scoring. Even if a team is successful in all these areas, when it comes to a win-or-go-home playoff game, one flub or poor coaching decision can make the difference.
We all know this. This is Football 101. Yet, whenever any of us get around to discussing quarterback greatness, it seems we temporarily forget this. In this instance, it doesn’t help that the winning quarterback for Tampa Bay was Brady, who is headed to his 10th Super Bowl with a chance to win his seventh ring.
Yet even Brady would be the first to say that his success is partly due to where he has ended up. According to sportswriter Ian O’Connor, during his time with the Patriots, Brady said this about Rodgers: “He’d thrown for 7,000 yards every year. He’s much more talented than me.” While Brady is heading to the Super Bowl without Belichick’s help this time, The Ringer’s Kevin Clark made the point that Brady put himself in a better position to win by joining the Buccaneers considering “the Patriots’ lack of offensive weapons.”
None of this leaves Rodgers completely off the hook for the Packers’ playoff struggles. In this game alone, Brady threw three interceptions, but Green Bay only managed to score points as a result of one of them. On the other two, their offense went three-and-out, something which has to be put mostly on Rodgers.
Even if LaFleur had decided to go for it on fourth down on the Packers’ last possession, Rodgers would have had to connect for a touchdown and a two-point conversion just to tie the game. It was a longshot. Still, it felt like Rodgers had a chance to put his destiny on his own shoulders and he – and the fans – were denied the chance of knowing how that would have ended.
MVP of the week
Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs. Was Patrick Mahomes at 100% when the Chiefs beat the Buffalo Bills to get a crack at their second championship in two years? Does it matter when you have targets like Hill and Travis Kelce? Mahomes was still great on Sunday, of course, but Hill was almost impossible to cover and his ability to add yards after the catch slashed the Bills in the AFC championship game. Hill ended the game with 172 receiving yards. Mahomes rightly gets the plaudits for his otherworldly skills, but we shouldn’t forget that his supporting cast help him reach exit velocity.
Stat of the week
10. Tom Brady will play in his 10th Super Bowl next month after the Bucs’ victory over the Packers. While Rodgers and Mahomes have more pure talent, Brady’s pathological commitment to winning remains breathtaking. Those who wondered whether his achievements with the New England Patriots were solely down to being paired with Bill Belichick’s football genius now have their answer.
Video of the week
The Bills couldn’t have hoped for a better start to the AFC Championship game. They scored first, it was just a field goal but it was a solid start. Then the Chiefs’ Mecole Hardman muffed a punt, giving possession right back to the Bills, who promptly converted it into a touchdown to go up 9-0. Then the good times came to a sudden end for Buffalo. Hardman made up for his mistake by scoring Kansas City’s first touchdown and then the Chiefs rattled off 21 unanswered. The Chiefs eventually won 38-24. The Bills have plenty to be upbeat about after a successful season, but they must also shudder at the thought that they need to get past Mahomes and Co for the next 10 years if they are to make a return to the Super Bowl.
Quote of the week
“[The Packers have] a lot of guys’ futures that are uncertain, myself included” – Aaron Rodgers after the loss to the Buccaneers on Sunday.
We started this column with Rodgers, and we’ll end with him too. It’s highly probable that the quarterback was merely a little low after another deflating loss in the NFC championship game. But he’s enough of an eccentric that it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise if he walked away after a season that was flawless until that final showdown with Tampa Bay.