Don’t tell Aaron Rodgers that Super Bowl LV is at Raymond James Stadium.
That hasn’t been the Green Bay Packers quarterback’s happy place.
Twice he has left Tampa, Florida, injured: a shoulder in 2008 and a calf in 2014.
He showed up there Sunday hoping for something different, saying this past week: “I’m hoping the third time is the charm.”
There was nothing charming about Sunday. Rodgers threw a pair of interceptions, including a rare pick-six, and the Packers (4-1) lost for the first time this season, 38-10 to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2).
“You don’t ever want to lose like this,” Rodgers said. “I felt like we needed a little bit of a wake-up call at some point this season because things have been so good and there’s been so much talk maybe outside the building about the ease with which we’re moving the ball on offense and scoring. I think we needed kind of a kick in the ass a little bit. There’s a little bit of wake-up to stop feeling ourselves so much and get back to the things that got us to this position. I think this would be, unfortunately but fortunately, something we can really grow from.”
Rodgers had been interception-free on his first 156 passes of the season, but on No. 157, he threw one to Bucs safety Jamel Dean. It turned into something even more rare for Rodgers: a pick-six. Before that play, Rodgers had thrown 6,214 times in his career and only two of those had been intercepted and returned for scores. On his 6,215th throw, it happened for a third time. That’s merely one pick-six for every 2,071 throws, but two of them have come at Tampa Bay (the other was his first ever, in 2009).
“That s— happens,” Rodgers said. “I haven’t had a lot of those over the years. But the wind was blowing pretty good right to left, and like I said, I felt good about the spot. I knew it was tight, we’ve hit throws like that, but I missed on my spot by probably a foot, or so. And the kid made a good play.”
Dean’s 32-yard interception return for a touchdown when he jumped an out route by wide receiver Davante Adams in the second quarter started a run of 38 consecutive points by Tampa Bay after the Packers led 10-0. Two passes later, Rodgers got picked off again — this one on another throw intended for Adams, a slant that appeared to be deflected by cornerback Carlton Davis or tipped by Adams. Either way, it landed in the hands of safety Mike Edwards.
It was just the second time in Rodgers’ career that he has thrown interceptions on consecutive first-half drives (and the first time in nearly seven years).
“Definitely swung the momentum in their favor and when we came back out. Give all the credit in the world to Tampa,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “The first [interception], Aaron threw with some anticipation, and the corner squatted all over it and made a good play. Second one, I knew we had a miscommunication out there. We weren’t in the right look. … Regardless, probably should’ve popped a timeout. Didn’t look right. Sure enough, it got batted around and got picked. A significant part of the game.”
Until those two throws, it looked like another Rodgers-led Green Bay masterpiece was in the works. The Packers dominated the first quarter with a field goal and a touchdown (a 1-yard run by Aaron Jones) on the first two drives. Even after it turned quickly to a 14-10 Bucs lead, Rodgers had his chances. He missed a wide-open Marcedes Lewis for what might have been a 75-yard touchdown to kill one drive, and then got sacked to end the next one after Jamaal Williams missed a blitz pickup.
“I don’t feel like we ever got into a rhythm, or even the 10 points to start the game,” Rodgers said. “We had off-scheduled plays to keep our drives alive. They deserve credit — they got us out of our rhythm.”
The Bucs’ swarming defense pressured Rodgers 12 times, the most anyone has gotten to Rodgers this season. Rodgers went just 2-of-7 for 10 yards with four sacks and a scramble when pressured. Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles blitzed Rodgers 17 times, and Rodgers went 5-of-14 with two sacks and both of his interceptions. It was tied for the most blitzes he has faced over the past two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“I thought Todd mixed it up really, really good with his fronts, blitzes [and] coverages,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said of Bowles. “You don’t usually get Aaron confused — I don’t think I’ve ever seen him confused. When you start running him down and chasing him out of there — early in the game he chased out and he made a lot of plays. We just kept chasing, it hemmed him up a little bit and we got some hits on him. The defensive line, linebackers and the secondary — it was a great defensive performance.”
Rodgers finished 16-of-35 for 160 yards without a touchdown and the two interceptions before coach Matt LaFleur let Tim Boyle finish the game. Rodgers’ passer rating of 35.4 was the second-lowest in a game he has started and didn’t leave because of injury. His only worse rating was on Dec. 14, 2014, at Buffalo (34.3).
Rodgers dropped to 1-3 against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium, but at least he came away healthy this time.
The same can’t be said for at least one other key member of the offense. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari left in the second half with a chest injury and did not return. The Packers finished the game with Rick Wagner at left tackle. They also finished the game without a pair of defensive starters: DT Tyler Lancaster (shoulder) and safety Darnell Savage (quadriceps).
Although Bakhtiari couldn’t finish the game, LaFleur said the preliminary indication is that it’s not a long-term issue.
While there’s still a long way to go, this game could have implications down the road, especially when it comes to playoff-seeding tiebreakers. Under Rodgers, the Packers have played in four NFC Championship Games. All of them have been on the road. If this loss means the Packers would have to go back to Tampa before the Super Bowl, they might not have to worry about where the final game of the 2020 season will be played.
“You can never really get comfortable in this league,” LaFleur said. “As soon as you get comfortable, you get your butt whipped.”