Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers became the first team in NFL history to reach a home-turf Super Bowl on Sunday with a 31-26 victory over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
The 43-year-old Brady advanced to a record 10th Super Bowl appearance as a late Packers fightback stalled in a thrilling NFC Championship game.
Brady threw for three touchdowns and 280 passing yards as opposite number Aaron Rodgers’ dreams of leading the Packers to the February 7 championship game in Tampa ended in bitter disappointment.
Rodgers threw for three touchdowns and 346 yards, but the Packers were left ruing a decision to go for a late field goal instead of a possible game-tying touchdown in the closing stages.
“It’s been a long process for the whole team, and today was just a great team effort,” Brady said afterwards.
“We played sporadically a little bit but the defense came up huge and we’re going to need it again in a couple of weeks.”
Brady, who left the New England Patriots last March after two decades, will now be chasing a seventh Super Bowl ring in what would be another improbable chapter to his age-defying career.
He could also become only the second quarterback to lead different franchises to a Super Bowl title if the Buccaneers win next month’s game at their own Raymond James Stadium.
“We’ll get to enjoy this a little bit and then get ready to go against whoever we play,” said Brady.
The Buccaneers will face either the Buffalo Bills or the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. The Bills and the Chiefs were playing Sunday in the AFC Championship decider.
‘A gutting feeling’
The top-seeded Packers meanwhile were left reflecting on a costly call late in the fourth quarter that ultimately handed possession to Tampa Bay and allowed Brady to close out the game.
“This one definitely stings and is going to for a long time, especially the way it played out and the chances we had,” a downcast Rodgers said.
“The finality of it all, kind of hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s a gutting feeling in your stomach.”
Rodgers and the Packers had fought back from a 28-10 deficit early in the second half to make it 28-23, before a Ryan Succop field goal from 46 yards put the Buccaneers eight points clear at 31-23.
But on the next drive, the Packers opted to kick a field goal from Mason Crosby from 26 yards rather than attempt a fourth down conversion to set up a possible game-tying touchdown.
Crosby’s kick sailed through, but the Packers defense were unable to win the ball back, and a costly pass interference penalty helped the Buccaneers keep possession and run down the clock.
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur explained the decision by saying he felt the Green Bay defense would win the ball back.
“The way our defense was playing it felt like it was the right decision,” LaFleur said. “It just didn’t work out.”
It was a flat ending for the Packers and Rodgers, who also paid the price for failing to make the most of several visits to the red zone which ended in field goals rather than touchdowns.
“This is a game where we needed seven and didn’t come up with it a couple times,” Rodgers said afterwards.
Brady meanwhile breathed a sigh of relief after a wobbly second half display which saw him throw three consecutive interception passes.
By that stage however the Bucs veteran had already put Tampa Bay into a position to win with a composed first half performance.
Brady hit Mike Evans for a touchdown on the opening drive, and then put Leonard Fournette into possession to rush over from 20 yards after Rodgers had levelled for the Packers with a 50-yard bomb to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Brady and the Bucs’ aggressive play-calling also paid off in the final minute of the half, when a decision to attempt a fourth down conversion rather than punt was successful.
On the following play, Brady hit Scotty Miller from 39 yards for a touchdown that put the Bucs up 21-10 at half-time.
Brady tossed a third touchdown to Cameron Brate for a 28-10 lead early in the second half after a Packers turnover.
Green Bay hit back with touchdowns from Robert Tonyan and Davante Adams to make it 28-23, but it was too little too late for the hosts.