Green Bay’s stunning, confusing, wildly entertaining and, ultimately, magical season came to a sour end on Sunday, losing to the now Super Bowl-bound Atlanta Falcons, 44-21.
Atlanta came out guns blazin’ to start the game, as Matt Ryan sliced his way through Green Bay’s swiss cheese secondary on the way to an opening drive touchdown, extending the team’s opening drive touchdown streak to an impressive eight games. The 13-play, 80-yard drive may well have defined the game; Ryan was unstoppable, converting two third downs with his arm, and the only “stops” Green Bay made on the drive were either dropped passes or stuffed running plays. The Falcons looked like the best team in the NFC, a well-disciplined, well-schemed group that minimized mistakes and was opportunistic when it mattered most. That type of description is usually befitting of the Packers, and yet the team’s first half performance felt like it was eerily snipped out of the team’s four-game losing streak from earlier in the season.
It’s difficult to diagnose exactly where Green Bay went wrong considering Atlanta won in every phase of the game, and the opposing team deserves credit for an excellent, well-executed game plan that attacked the Packers’ weaknesses and tried to put pressure on Rodgers. But it’s frustrating to know that a string of bad plays in the first half snowballed into a 24-0 Atlanta halftime lead and had a decidedly profound impact on the game. Even after Ryan led that first touchdown drive, Rodgers hooked up with Jordy Nelson on back-to-back passing plays of 29 and 15 yards to move the ball into Atlanta territory. Green Bay had to settle for a 41-yard field goal, and Mason Crosby – he of the longest consecutive field goal streak in playoff history – missed a gimme while kicking in a dome with no wind. It certainly wasn’t a dagger for Green Bay’s hopes – the score was only 7-0 – but it unquestionably formed the foundation of the snowball.
When the defense managed to impressively hold Atlanta to a 28-yard field goal on the following drive (side note: Green Bay left Falcons tight end Austin Hooper WIDE OPEN at the line of scrimmage on third-and-seven, and nobody had the wherewithal to either cover him or just call a timeout and regroup. Hooper predictably caught the pass and converted the first down. A better and more experienced defense doesn’t make that mistake, which means both Capers and Thompson deserve blame here), Green Bay was only down 10-0 with plenty of time left. Rodgers hit Cobb on consecutive plays for gains of 17 and 22 yards and, again, the Packers were in Atlanta territory. Aaron Ripkowski ran for 12 yards on a shotgun draw down to the Atlanta ten yard line, and then committed a crucial fumble that was recovered by Atlanta. The call was dubious as to whether or not the player recovering the ball should have been ruled down at the 1 or called for a safety (Atlanta was rewarded a touchback and Joe Buck and Troy Aikman predictably ignored the entire thing), but that doesn’t take away from the crushing blow of fumbling away a goal-to-go opportunity.
It will go down as a game of what-ifs for the Packers, which is scarily starting to become a microcosm for the Rodgers/McCarthy/Capers/Thompson era as a whole (that’s a different article for a different day, stay tuned). If Crosby makes the field goal, one that he usually makes in his sleep, and Ripkowski doesn’t commit the first fumble of his NFL career, the game is likely tied at 10-10 with nearly three full quarters of football left to be played. After allowing Matt Ryan’s first rushing touchdown since SEPTEMBER OF 2012 (Per NFL.com), Green Bay was down 17-0 and the game was quickly slipping away. But on Atlanta’s next drive, Taylor Gabriel fumbled a handoff from Ryan, and Packer linebacker Jake Ryan was the first to jump on the ball. But Ryan somehow couldn’t corral it in and got the ball ripped away. and Gabriel ended up with it. It would have given the Packers the ball in Atlanta territory with a real shot at making the game 17-7 and keeping it reasonably close, but again, Green Bay simply couldn’t take advantage of a golden opportunity. Ryan managed to throw a dagger touchdown to worldbeater Julio Jones with three seconds left in the half (it was painfully obvious the call was either a fade or back-shoulder throw for Julio with no safety help over the top), but Atlanta only had that opportunity because Marwin Evans and LaDarius Gunter (both UDFAs) both couldn’t come down with potential interceptions on the drive. You get the picture.
The Packers fought valiantly in the second half, putting 21 gritty points on the board even after Julio Jones destroyed Green Bay’s souls on this backbreaking 73-yard touchdown to start the half (Jones is a freak by the way. I even said “he’s gone” to my roommate as soon as he caught the ball). In the end, Rodgers had a decent game, finishing 27/45 for 287 yards, three touchdowns, one interception (which essentially served as a punt) and four rushes for 46 yards, which led the Packers in rushing. It was a fine performance, not a transcendent one, and he was certainly outplayed by Ryan on the other side. But Ryan had a clean pocket all day long (zero sacks on the day) and his receivers were simply wide open on practically every throw. Rodgers wasn’t afforded either luxury and was fighting uphill all game long due to the aforementioned miscues, lack of a running game, and a defense that forced only two punts.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for those who have followed this team and its late-season run so closely. From “run the table” to the Jordy bomb in Chicago, Cobb’s Hail Mary and the absurd victory in Dallas, there was a while where it felt like nobody was stopping this magical season. But magic doesn’t win football games; coaching, schemes and personnel do, and Atlanta outdid Green Bay in every one of those aspects. After Rodgers managed to hide the blemishes of this roster for impossibly long, the team is now left with many tough questions to face in the offseason. Does Ted Thompson still deserve his role as GM, or perhaps were injuries to blame? Is it Dom Capers fault Atlanta scored 44 points or was he simply making the best of a talent- and speed-deficient defense? Can Ty Montgomery be the team’s full-time starting running back? Is Damarious Randall even really a cornerback? These are questions better left answered another day.
The Packers head into the offseason with plenty to think about, while Atlanta will spend two weeks figuring out how to beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Even with so many questions unanswered, two things are abundantly clear for this team. The first is that Rodgers, despite not being human, simply cannot do it all on his own. He was the Packers leading rusher both times the team played Atlanta this season, as McCarthy only called for nine designed running plays all game (not including running the clock out). The Packers need to fix the running game, and there are several potential suitors in the draft (Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey) and free agency (Lacy, LaGarrette Blount, Jacquizz Rodgers, Danny Woodhead, Rex Burkhead) that could form a mean committee with Montgomery. Second, this secondary might have been the worst in football this year and needs a lot of help. Yes, getting Sam Shields back would help, but there’s no guarantee he ever plays another down again considering his lengthy concussion history. This year’s draft is incredibly deep at defensive back and I expect the Packers to take at least two corners to ensure guys that went undrafted aren’t guarding guys like Julio Jones. Additionally, guys like Brandon Flowers, Prince Amukamara, Captain Munnerlyn, and Stephon Gilmore will all be available in free agency.
Sure, if you’re a Packer fan yesterday certifiably sucked, and reliving the putrid performance through this recap probably isn’t helping. While there’s a lot to be fixed about this team, don’t let the NFC championship mar a heck of a season. The eight-game stretch after Rodgers prophetically claimed the Packers could Run The Table, culminating in the epic win in Dallas, is still a legendary string of games and something I’ll never forget. So as you slog through Monday and fight through your football season hangover, take a second to remember all the positive, thrilling moments from a truly magical run. And hey, at least there’s next year.