When it was all but over, the carnage nearly complete, after the Falcons had gained almost 500 total yards and run roughshod over a decimated bend-don’t-break defense that had definitively and finally broken, and after half a dozen more Packers players joined their crowded corps of injured teammates on the sidelines, and after Aaron Rodgers – the quarterback – was flagged for a frustration-fueled facemask penalty and later replaced by backup Brett Hundley because he was at risk of being decapitated, and after Green and Gold fans had sadly and truly resigned themselves to defeat, there was defensive tackle Letroy Guion in on offense for the last possession, playing right guard because three-fifths of the starting offensive line was hurt and unable to finish the game.
It felt like a fitting end to a campaign defined by injuries, defensive deficiency and incredible quarterback play. Eventually, the third couldn’t save the first two from dooming Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, a staggering 44-21 blowout loss to the Falcons that ended their season in Atlanta.
Rodgers said two months ago he thought the then 4-6 Packers could win out and make the playoffs, which they did. Riding an eight-game winning streak, it seemed like his confident pronouncement that the team would "run the table" might extend all the way to the Super Bowl in Houston. But at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, Green Bay officially ran out of table. And while the Packers were not favored – in fact they were five-point underdogs – and many expected a high-scoring affair, no one predicted this, an embarrassing rout in which they were doubled up in the final score. The Falcons flipped over the effing table.
This was a new way to lose in the playoffs for head coach Mike McCarthy’s team, but it certainly wasn’t any more fun. Unlike the three previous postseasons, when Green Bay fell on a close game-deciding final possession or play, the Packers were never really in this one. Atlanta, which had scored on its first series in seven straight games, scored on its first series Sunday, capping an 80-play drive with a short touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Mohamed Sanu. When kicker Mason Crosby – who had made a NFL-record 23 straight field goals in the postseason entering the game – missed a 41-yarder on the next possession, it was an ominous sign indeed.
While the Falcons added a field goal and two touchdowns before halftime, the Packers finished the half scoreless – going fumble, punt, interception – and the 24-0 score marked the largest first-half deficit of Rodgers’ career. Hell, Green Bay had been playing so well lately that when Atlanta went up 10-0 in the first quarter, that was the Packers’ biggest deficit in their last nine games.
There were mistakes and injuries and disappointments in every facet of the team throughout the game, but Crosby’s missed field goal and fullback Aaron Ripkowski’s first-quarter fumble – both from inside the Falcons’ 25-yard line – were critical missed points in a game that everyone knew would be a shootout. Green Bay had to capitalize on scoring opportunities, and it did not.
If Guion admirably playing offensive line was a fitting end, another earlier play was a microcosm for the game. Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones had already torched the Packers’ depleted secondary (particularly cornerback LaDarius Gunter) for a pair of touchdowns, including a 73-yarder to start the second half, but a non-scoring catch in the third quarter really seemed to encapsulate the afternoon's awful experience.
Jones beat Gunter – who had committed a defensive holding penalty the play before – and Ryan, the MVP frontrunner, found his favorite target over the middle for 23 yards. As Jones caught the ball, he was immediately split in half, a high-low sandwich from Gunter and linebacker Jake Ryan that caused Jones to flip over.
The All-World receiver somehow managed to not break his neck, popping up just fine despite the big hit to celebrate another Falcons first down. Meanwhile, Ryan, the player who’d delivered the main damage, went down with an injury and had to leave the game. Atlanta would proceed to score another touchdown and go up 37-7. That's pretty much how it went Sunday.
After the game, many players offered a variation on the same message: that they made some early mistakes and didn’t take advantage of opportunities, gave up too many big plays against a dangerous offense, lost a bunch of guys to injury and ultimately ran out of gas. The momentum the Packers had from winning their final six regular-season games to clinch the division title and take their first two postseason contests just couldn’t propel them to the Super Bowl.
But it was a year in which Rodgers silenced – hopefully forever – critics who doubted his all-time greatness, McCarthy kept his team together and triumphed over significant adversity and Green Bay accomplished a lot. It just couldn't, or was not able to, take the final step.
All season, we wondered what this team really was. Were they as bad as they looked at 4-6, as good as they seemed the last few weeks? Were they a so-called team of destiny, fated for the Super Bowl, or simply playing with house money, having already advanced beyond where they should ever have gotten to? As always, the reality was somewhere in between all of that, and at least the crushing result of Sunday left fewer doubts, what-ifs and regrets.
There was a sense of finality to the loss, but there are also plenty of questions moving forward. Will defensive coordinator Dom Capers be back? Will there be key player moves? What will the running game look like? Is there any way – please let there be a way – to reduce or mitigate all of these damn injuries? Plus, many, many more.
We’ll worry about those at a later time, though. For now, let’s take a look back at Sunday’s defeat, if you can bear to revisit it. Here's everything you need to know, or just forgot, or missed after you muted the TV because Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are intolerable and you stormed out when it was 31-0 – plus all kinds of other wacky whatnots, from the Packers' NFC Championship Game loss to the Falcons.
Nobody, really, not even Rodgers, who ended up having a decent little game, completing 27 of 45 passes for 287 yards with three touchdowns, one interception and a 91.6 rating. Jordy Nelson gets a nod for gutting out – almost literally – an impressive performance with six receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown, despite broken ribs suffered two weeks prior, which he described as the worst pain he’s ever felt. Tight end Jared Cook played well again, demonstrating the chemistry and trust he’s developed with Rodgers, garnering team highs of 12 targets and seven catches, which went for 78 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the starting safeties actually played well, relatively speaking, with Morgan Burnett returning from a quadriceps injury to make seven tackles and a nice diving pass breakup, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix recording five tackles, including one for loss, two passes defensed and one jarring early hit on Jones. Disruptive defensive lineman Mike Daniels was good, too, playing with high energy and getting two quarterback hits. And Jacob Schum had two nice punts for a 54.0-yard average. But, yeah, nobody really starred.
Everybody, mostly. The offensive line, which was bruised, battered and – in T.J. Lang’s case – broken, was beaten badly on Sunday, allowing seven hits on Rodgers, who avoided several others by getting outside the pocket and running. The quarterback missed a few throws and could have had two interceptions (one was ruled incomplete). The running game was halted from the start and a nonfactor, with Ty Montgomery hobbled early on (three carries for 17 yards), Ripkowski fumbling and Christine Michael doing absolutely nothing positive (six carries, 11 yards). The receivers struggled to get open against an average-at-best Falcons secondary, though Randall Cobb found some space, with six catches for 82 yards.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line had little push and almost no penetration, except for Daniels. The linebackers hardly added a pass rush (Ryan was not sacked in the game), though Clay Matthews and Nick Perry were OK. And the defensive backfield was fully as bad as was feared it could be, allowing 392 passing yards and four touchdowns. The Packers had no takeaways, and Capers – even considering the injuries – looked overmatched and unprepared. Crosby, the dependable hero in Dallas, missed his only field-goal attempt.
The Packers medical staff? Their strength and conditioning coaches? Bad luck? Obama? Trump? Everyone?
(Mike McCarthy isn't renowned for his play-calling, having fired and then rehired himself for that role last year, but he does try his best. Here we rate his coaching performance, on a score from one to 10 McCarthy heads.)
Many players, and McCarthy himself, said afterward the Falcons just started faster than the Packers. They went up, 24-0, at halftime, and Green Bay looked lifeless with no answers. That’s on the coaches, because it’s a failure of organization, preparation, motivation, game-planning and adjustment-making. Of course, the game – and the coaching decisions – might have looked a lot different if the Packers had gotten 10 points on the Crosby and Ripkowski drives, but McCarthy was unable to marshal and redeploy his guys in any productive manner after those mistakes.
Green Bay ran the ball a grand total of three times in the first half. Three times! Yes, the team fell behind early and didn’t have a fully-healthy Montgomery at its disposal, but Atlanta’s first-half leads were not insurmountable and there was plenty of time to work with before going into throw-only mode. McCarthy essentially eliminated half the options in his playbook by not trying to run the ball against one of the NFL’s weaker rush defenses, unbalancing the offense and making the Packers predictable. In the second half, he seemed to realize he needed to run, calling many more ground plays and even – mistakenly – giving the ball to Michael on a two-point conversion attempt.
Atlanta came out fast and strong and was borderline unstoppable; the game just seemed like it was moving too fast for McCarthy, who insisted afterward that he was proud of his team and their season. We were proud too, just not today. Three heads.
Brewers pitchers and catchers report in 23 days!
If the Packers’ flight out of Green Bay hadn’t been delayed, forcing them to bus to Milwaukee and causing them to arrive in Atlanta several hours late, they would have been better prepared and rested and would’ve won the game.
"There was only one team that was going to walk out of here today feeling the way you wanted to feel. But that's the beauty of competing in this league. It's not for everybody, and it's not for everybody to get to this point, and that's the reality of why we work the way we work, and they were better than us today. They played the way they needed to play early and often, and we did not." – Mike McCarthy
Well, the season is over, so I suppose it’s encouraging that no more players – knock on wood! – can get injured. You’re all safe from harm now, Green Bay Packers. No one can hurt you on vacation in Turks and Caicos.
But seriously, considering where they came from, at 4-6 and better than only two other teams in the conference in Week 11, the Packers had a very good year. Rodgers proved incontrovertibly that he’s one of the best who’s ever played the position and absolutely not declining, while the team overcame a ridiculous number of injuries – especially concentrated at a few positions – to make the NFL’s final four. Good job, Green Bay.
Another year with Rodgers, another premature playoff exit. I don’t want to start talking about windows of opportunity and how many great years the superstar quarterback has left, but it’s no secret among Packers fans that only one trip to the Super Bowl with Rodgers is unacceptable. This organization has been successful for so long, especially under McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson, because of its consistency and steadiness and commitment to doing things "the Packer way." But at some point, you have to wonder if big changes are needed to bring about bigger, better results.
And on a more basic level, the sheer number of injuries this year was alarming. This is football, so guys are going to get hurt, and every team deals with injuries. Often, teams that do well are simply the ones that stayed healthier. But the Packers have had more injuries than many teams for several years now, and this season was extreme. Perhaps it’s time to look at the preventative, rehabilitative and procedural medical processes in Green Bay, to see how the team can improve. And, if not, then it's at least time to stop talking about them so damned much.
The season is ended, Green Bay is done. The Super Bowl is Feb. 5, and you should at least attend a watch party to eat dip and drink beers, even if our beloved Packers are not playing in the big game. After that, the NFL Scouting Combine is in late February, followed by the start of free agency in March and then the NFL Draft in April.
What do you think the Packers need to do now? What’s the first move they need to make for next season? Let us know in the comments, and thanks for an exciting season, Green Bay!
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.