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Bucs Hold Off Packers, Earn Historic Super Bowl Berth In Their Home Stadium

Bucs receiver Mike Evans celebrates his 15-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter of the Bucs' 31-26 NFC Championship win over the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 24, 2021.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers / Twitter
Bucs receiver Mike Evans celebrates his 15-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter of the Bucs' 31-26 NFC Championship win over the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 24, 2021.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started off quickly, then held off the persistent Green Bay Packers in the second half Sunday night to become the first team in NFL history to earn a Super Bowl berth in their home stadium.

Quarterback Tom Brady was brought in this season to fulfill a promise to win a championship, but he and the Bucs had to weather three interceptions on consecutive drives between the third and fourth quarters to stop the top-seeded Packers 31-26 to earn a spot in Super Bowl LV.

They'll get another chance at the Kansas City Chiefs, a 38-24 winner over the Buffalo Bills in the AFC championship game. The Bucs scored 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter but lost to Kansas City 27-24 at home in Week 12 on Nov. 29 as Patrick Mahomes completed 37 of 49 passes for 462 yards and three touchdowns

“We’re coming home,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said after the game, holding the George Halas Trophy signifying the NFC champion. “We’re coming home to win.”

But there were a few tense moments, including Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s curious decision to opt for a field goal instead of a potential game-tying touchdown and 2-point conversion with two minutes left in the game.

The Bucs were only able to put the game away largely with the help of a pass interference call against Packers cornerback Kevin King, who grabbed Bucs receiver Tyler Johnson’s jersey on a third-down pass with 1:46 left in the game. It preserved the Bucs’ win and first Super Bowl appearance since their 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego in 2003.

“It’s been a great journey this far,” Brady said.

Brady earned his 10th Super Bowl appearance with the Bucs’ third road win in the playoffs, and the win was Tampa Bay’s second against Green Bay, following a 38-10 home win in Week 7 on Oct. 18. And a win would give Brady his seventh Super Bowl trophy.

“I mean, truly historic for it to be the first time a team has played in their home stadium for the championship,” said Rob Higgins head of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and president of the Super Bowl Host Committee. “We're just so happy for them, elated for them to be a part of this and naturally being one step away from the Lombardi (Trophy).”

Despite the three interceptions, Brady went 20-for-36 for 280 yards and three touchdowns, and Chris Godwin caught five passes for 110 yards.

“It’s great to get another road win, and now we got a home game,” Brady said. “Who’d ever thought a home Super Bowl for us? But we did it.

“I thought the defense was spectacular. They’ve done that all year.”

Brady's counterpart, Aaron Rodgers, finished 33-for-48 for 346 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception.

But Rodgers was harassed much of the game by a relentless Bucs defense led by Shaquil Barrett and former USF Bull Jason Pierre-Paul, who combined for five sacks as the Bucs snapped the Packers' seven-game winning streak and handed Green Bay its fourth NFC championship game loss in seven seasons.

Despite the three interceptions, it was a game largely decided on a pair of turnovers by the Packers – one to close out the first half, and another to open the second half that produced a 14-point swing and lifted the Bucs (13-5) to that second Super Bowl appearance.

The first came when Sean Murphy-Bunting snagged a pass intended for Packer Allen Lazard at Tampa Bay’s 49-yard line with 34 seconds remaining. It was Murphy-Bunting’s third interception in the playoffs, and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ third pick against the Bucs this season.

The Bucs stunned the Packers by bringing the half to an end with a 39-yard Brady touchdown pass to Scotty Miller, who beat King in the left side of the end zone and gave the Bucs a 21-10 lead with one second left before the half.

“We didn’t come here to not take chances to win the game,” Arians said. “Love the play we had. Got a great matchup and got a TD. That was huge.”

“Tom is the GOAT (greatest of all time),” Miller said. “Last year, we ended 7-9. This year, we’re going to the Super Bowl. He’s the biggest reason.”

The second came on the third play of the second half. Aaron Jones took a short pass from Rodgers at Green Bay’s 32-yard line, but fumbled after a hit by Jordan Whitehead. Devin White scooped up the ball and ran it to the 8-yard line, and on the next play, Brady found Cameron Brate alone in the back of the end zone to give the Bucs a 27-10 lead.

Whitehead suffered a shoulder injury later in the quarter and would not return.

The Packers made things interesting in the second half with the three consecutive interceptions by Brady in the third and fourth quarters.

With eight minutes left in the third quarter, Adrian Amos picked off a deep pass intended for Mike Evans.

Carlton Davis’ helmet-to-helmet hit on Davante Adams gave the Packers first-and-goal inside the Tampa Bay 3.

On third down, Rodgers hit Adams for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left in the third quarter. The Packers went for two points, but Equanimeous St. Brown dropped the ball in the end zone after it was tipped by Buc Ndamukong Suh at the line of scrimmage, and the Packers trailed 28-23.

And on the Bucs’ next possession, another pass intended for Evans tipped off his hands and into the awaiting arms of Jaire Alexander at the Packers’ 2-yard line.

Green Bay went three-and-out on the ensuing drive.

After the Green Bay punt, Alexander intercepted another pass intended for Evans down the right sideline at the Green Bay 24 with 9:22 left in the game.

Again, that possession ended up in a three-and-out.

The Bucs started off quickly, scoring on their first possession of the game.

Tampa Bay drove 66 yards on nine plays, capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Evans with 10:59 left in the first quarter.

After the teams traded punts, Green Bay scored on a 50-yard touchdown third-down pass from Aaron Rodgers to Marquez Valdes-Scantling at 14:07 in the second quarter.

The Bucs answered on a 20-yard run by Leonard Fournette, who made a nifty spin move at the 10 before diving into the end zone with 12:24 left in the second quarter to give the Bucs a 14-7 lead. The play was set up by a 52-yard pass from Brady to Chris Godwin.

On the next drive, Green Bay had first down at the Bucs’ 6. But after three Rodgers incompletions – including a catch by Davante Adams out of bounds in the back of the end zone -- the Packers had to settle for a 24-yard Mason Crosby field goal.

The Bucs effectively put the game away following a Green Bay punt, with Ron Gronkowski taking a Brady swing pass and running it 29 yards to the Green Bay 30 to set up a 46-yard Ryan Succop field goal with 4:46 left, giving the Bucs a 31-23 lead.

The Packers had a chance to tie the game with a touchdown and 2-point conversion, but the Bucs held the Packers to a 26-yard Mason Crosby field goal with 2:09 left in the game.

“I’m just pretty gutted,” Rodgers said. “It’s a long season. You put so much into it to get to this point. We had our chances.”

On third-and-1, Rodgers completed an 11-yard pass to Adams, who was pushed out of bounds at the Bucs’ 8-yard line with 2:28 left.

After two incompletions, Rodgers appeared to have room to make a dash toward the end zone on third down, but threw an incomplete pass to Adams at the goal line.

Instead of going it on fourth down, the Packers settled for the field goal.

“Anytime it doesn’t work out you always regret it, right?” LaFleur said. “It was just circumstance of having three shots and coming away with no yards. And knowing that you not only need the touchdown but you’d need the 2-point. The way I was looking at it is we essentially had four timeouts with the 2-minute warning, we knew we needed to get a stop.”

Said Rodgers: “I understand the thinking — above two minutes with all of our timeouts — but it wasn’t my decision.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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Carl Lisciandrello is digital news editor of WUSF Public Media.
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