Breaking down 3 critical decisions at the end of the NFC Championship game

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Mark Schofield
·9 min read
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The end of the NFC Championship game offers football fans a few different scenarios and decisions that are going to be debated throughout the offseason. From Bruce Arians accepting a deliberate offsides penalty, Tampa Bay Buccaneers kick returner sliding down inbounds on a kickoff prior to the two minute warning, and of course Matt LaFleur’s decision to kick a field goal in the final minutes, fans are going to be arguing over these moments for weeks to come.

Let’s dive into each of the decisions, breaking down the three critical decisions at the end of the NFC Championship game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Green Bay Packers.

Jaydon Mickens slides to the turf on the kickoff return

After the Green Bay Packers kicked the field goal to cut the Buccaneers' lead to five points - don't worry, we're working towards that decision -- the Packers had to kickoff to Tampa Bay returner Jaydon Mickens. Prior to Mason Crosby's right foot hitting the football, there were two minutes and five seconds remaining in the game, and the Packers had all three timeouts remaining. The first thing to consider is this: The Buccaneers played for a potential onside kick. Tampa Bay aligned ten of their return team members within 16 yards of the football, including eight near the ten-yard mark that any potential onside kick must travel:

Now given Green Bay's decision to kick the field goal, you might assume that Matt LaFleur is kicking it deep. But you do not want to give the Packers a chance for a cheap and easy onside kick recovery, so the Buccaneers have to put their hands team on the field and prepare for that situation. Instead, Crosby put his foot to the ball and lofted it deep, dropping the kick just inside the ten-yard line. Here is what Mickens was working with when he fielded the football:

Given that the Buccaneers had their hands team in the game, and aligned 10 of Mickens' teammates well upfield in expectation for an onside kick, the returner cannot expect that blocks are going to set up well for him. Not only are his teammates in poor positioning to block for him, but he does not have some of the best blockers on the roster in front of him. Unless you're expecting players like Chris Godwin, Tyler Johnson, Justin Watson, Cameron Brate and Sean Murphy-Bunting to set a strong wedge for him. So Mickens pushes upfield as far as he can until he is threatened, and then immediately slides when inside linebacker Ty Summers - who is absolutely unblocked and is coming at him in a full sprint - looms: [video width="960" height="540" mp4="https://touchdownwire.usatoday.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/59/2021/01/MickensSlideVideo.mp4">[/video] Now, many have been critical of the decision to slide here by Mickens, as he in effect gifted the Packers a fourth timeout. By sliding down prior to the two minute warning, Green Bay could stop the clock four times. It sure looks bad when you put it that way. It would look worse if the Packers could stop the clock four times while they were on offense. Mickens is behind a hodgepodge of players who are on the field for their hands, not their blocking skills. As you can see when Mickens starts upfield he has an inside linebacker bearing down on him with a free shot, untouched by the members of the hands team. Summers is listed at 240 pounds. Mickens? A stout 170. The last thing you want if you are Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers is for Mickens to cough up the football. The returner here has two jobs: Catch the ball cleanly, and hold onto the football. Any time he milks off the clock is secondary. Once that hands team was put on the field, Mickens' job was clear: One you are threatened, get down For those wondering why he did not try and milk time by working laterally, something to consider there is field position. If he gives up ground in an effort to milk the clock, you might gift the Packers better field position if you are eventually forced to punt. Catch the ball, get to the ground, and hope that Tom Brady and company can ice the game away.

Bruce Arians accepts the intentional offsides penalty

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

We perhaps have Mike Vrabel to thank for this discussion. In last year's wild-card round, the Titans head coach used a strategy of taking some intentional penalties when his team had the lead to milk time off the clock, salting away an upset win over the Patriots and his former coach Bill Belichick. This season, Vrabel used the strategy to try and conserve time, helping Tennessee to a comeback win over the Texans. Vrabel took what seemed to be an intentional 12 men on the field penalty when the Texans had the football and faced a 2nd-and-1. The penalty gave the Texans a first down, but it stopped the clock, and in the end perhaps saved Tennessee 40 seconds:

By giving the Texans the first down on a penalty, Vrabel had stopped the clock without calling timeout. If the Texans had run the ball, there’s a good chance they would have picked up the first down anyway, but the clock would have kept running. Vrabel saved about 40 seconds with the penalty. Those 40 seconds made a huge difference, as the Titans ended up scoring the game-tying touchdown with four seconds left, and then winning the game in overtime.

Now let's return to the NFC Championship game. After the Mickens slide, Tom Brady hit Mike Evans for a nine-yard gain, and the clock stopped with 1:56 left in the game for the two minute warning. When the teams lined up for the next play -- a 2nd-and-1 just like Vrabel faced earlier in the year -- Damon Harrison jumped offsides. Flags went flying. Arians might have been smart to decline the penalty. Why? After all, you want to get first downs in this situation. But by accepting this penalty you accelerate the timeline for Green Bay to get the football back. The Packers still have all three timeouts. Now facing a first down instead of the second down, they can stop you on first, second and third downs and stop the clock as well, meaning you might have to give Aaron Rodgers the ball back with time left to make a miracle happen. If you decline the penalty, in essence you give yourself a shot at running four plays: The second down you currently face and the three downs you'll get after converting. Green Bay can only stop the clock three times. In addition, the NFL rule book does have a clause where teams who try and take intentional penalties for the purposes of conserving time get penalized for doing so. Section 7, Article 1 of the NFL Rule Book states as follows:

A team is not permitted to conserve time after the two-minute warning of either half by committing any of these acts: (a) a foul by either team that prevents the snap (i.e., false start, encroachment, etc.); If the action is by the defense, the play clock will be reset to 40 seconds, and the game clock will start on the ready signal, unless the offense chooses to have the clock start on the snap. If the defense has timeouts remaining, it will have the option of using a timeout in lieu of the game clock being started.

It is hard to flag that on one instance of an offsides penalty. But if the Packers were to try it again after you declined the penalty to put this same scenario in play, you might force the referees to enforce this rule, putting either a time out in jeopardy or starting the clock again. Yes, it is hard to turn down free yards and a free first down, but in this situation it might have been the right call.

Matt LaFleur kicks the field goal

(Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)

Of all the end-game decisions, this is the one that is going to be debated the most. It also seems the easiest one to have a position on. With just over two minutes remaining and the Packers facing a 4th-and-goal from the Tampa Bay eight yard line, LaFleur faced a critical decision. The Packers trailed by eight, 31-23, and had all three timeouts remaining, plus the two-minute warning. So they could stop the clock four times on the eventual Tampa Bay possession. LaFleur had also seen his offense fail on the previous two plays, with Rodgers passing attempts falling incomplete on both second and third downs. So he sent his field goal unit into the game. The reaction on social media, as it always is, was swift and furious. How in the world can you take Rodgers off the field and put the game in the hands of your defense? Particularly when the numbers - by a slim margin at least - favored keeping the offense on the field? https://twitter.com/SethWalder/status/1353478598129233926 https://twitter.com/ben_bot_baldwin/status/1353478222801985537 It is hard to defend this decision, especially given the evidence available as well as the outcome we all saw, but as a former lawyer, I am going to do my best. LaFleur had seen his offense on two previous possessions, but his defense step up. Tom Brady had thrown three-straight interceptions earlier in the second half, and there was no guarantee that the Buccaneers would be able to salt the game away. What also probably factored into his decision was the fact that the Packers had just sputtered on two plays near the goal line, and the touchdown was by no means a sure thing, nor was the two-point conversion they would need. Take the points, trust your defense to get a stop, and now you just need a touchdown to win and not a two-point conversion. ... I tried. The bottom line is that LaFleur took the ball away from Aaron Rodgers and gave it to Tom Brady. Not even the best lawyers in the world could defend that move.