By Jimmy Carlton Sportswriter Published Sep 18, 2017 at 5:01 AM

Surely, the narrative has already emerged and will quickly grow stronger to explain away Green Bay’s painfully familiar-feeling loss in Atlanta – the one assigning blame to the play of the backup offensive tackles, and to the injuries that removed five players from the game, and to the noise of the new stadium and the field’s fast turf, and to the referees and their punitive pick penalties.

But all of that obscures the reality of the true story: the Packers aren’t as good as the Falcons, and Sunday night’s 34-23 primetime defeat – a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game that looked more like a replay of it – was a reminder of that fact.

The Packers defense was no match for Atlanta’s fast-moving, multifaceted and explosive offense, a juggernaut led by quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones that has many more talented players contributing to it, which exerted its will seemingly whenever it wanted to. Even after the Packers had clawed their way back from being down 24 points to make it 34-23 late in the fourth quarter – and even with all the possible excuses for playing so poorly – it felt fitting that, when Green Bay was still conceivably in the game, the defense couldn’t make a stop when it absolutely needed to.

On offense, after scoring a touchdown on the opening drive, Aaron Rodgers and Co. didn’t get into the end zone again until the beginning of the fourth quarter. Green Bay tried its up-tempo, no-huddle offense, but struggled with the noise in the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and with the inexperience of its replacement offensive tackles.

Rodgers afterward said he was "really proud" of Kyle Murphy and Justin McCray – a 2016 sixth-rounder and an undrafted rookie making their first starts in place of left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, respectively – but it was clear the quarterback was under added pressure from the Falcons’ rabid pass rush, and he had almost no time to find open receivers.

The Packers actually outgained the Falcons in total yards (367 to 364), got more first downs (24 to 19) and won the time of possession battle (31:23 to 28:37), but that was largely because Atlanta was so devastatingly efficient with the ball and had better field position. Green Bay committed the game’s only two turnovers, and they were quite costly – a first-quarter interception that, four plays later, resulted in an Atlanta touchdown, and a Rodgers backwards-pass fumble that was returned for another score.

The Packers were also hurt by two offensive pass interference penalties – for supposed pick plays – that Rodgers said were major momentum-changing turning points, and also wrong.

In the end, though, you don’t fall behind 31-7 to a team that beat you 44-21 the last time you played, and lose in a strikingly similar fashion, if you’re better than that team. Currently, the Packers are not better than the Falcons, who very nearly won the Super Bowl last season.

Fully healthy, at home, with a couple different referee calls? Maybe it’s a different result. But Green Bay doesn’t get to control the situation – and when are they ever really healthy? – and, as head coach Mike McCarthy said afterward, part of football is lining up and just playing, no matter the circumstances.

With the wound still fresh, let’s look back at the Packers’ 34-23 loss to the Falcons on Sunday night to try and find some answers – and maybe some peace.

Who starred?

Three pass-catchers were bright spots, after No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson went down with a quad injury in the first quarter. Wideouts Davante Adams and Randall Cobb and running back Ty Montgomery made big plays offensively, with Adams giving Green Bay a downfield threat, Cobb working effectively over the middle and in the seams and the indefatigable Montgomery serving as a safety-valve checkdown option for Rodgers.

Adams caught eight passes for 99 yards and a fantastic, diving touchdown that gave the Packers some small hope in the fourth quarter. Montgomery had six catches for 75 yards and a touchdown, as well as 10 rushes for 35 yards on the ground, and was still going strong late. And Cobb finished with six receptions for 60 yards, before leaving the game with a shoulder injury.

Who stunk?

Three tight ends didn’t do enough. It would be easy here to pick the second-string tackles who were forced into starting roles for which they weren’t ready; we could also pick the secondary, which was again torched by Atlanta; or even Rodgers, who completed 33 of 50 passes for 343 yards with two touchdowns and two turnovers, not up to his typically excellent standards.

But here we’re going with Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks and Richard Rodgers, who combined for seven catches on 15 targets for just 69 yards, in a game when injuries and circumstances dictated that they needed to play huge roles. Bennett, particularly, was disappointing, dropping multiple passes and being flagged for a pick route that negated a 36-yard gain – though his blocking was very good. Rodgers had a minimal impact and Kendricks was invisible. Tight end is supposed to be a position of strength for the Packers, but on Sunday it was a nonfactor.

Unsung hero

Rookie cornerback Kevin King showed up. After playing just six total snaps last week, King was thrown into the fire against Atlanta, and for the most part he performed very well. Sometimes covering Jones, who finished with five catches for 108 yards, sometimes on Mohamed Sanu or a running back, and sometimes filling space, King was usually in position and often a disruptor.

The 6-foot-3 corner had three important pass breakups and was stout in run support, making three tackles and showing an eagerness to be physical. Since Davon House went down with a quadriceps injury late in the game, and Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins reverted back to being subpar, King may have won himself a starting job this week.

McCarthy score

(Mike McCarthy isn't renowned for his play-calling, having fired and then rehired himself for that role in the past, but he does call the plays. Here we rate his coaching performance, on a score from one to 10 McCarthy heads.)

There was plenty of adversity, indeed, lots of challenges. Being without two crucial offensive linemen; losing five players in-game, including four starters; being on the wrong end of a couple questionable officiating calls; it’s all enough to make a head coach scream obscenities until he’s red in the face, which McCarthy was after excoriating referees on the pick-play flag.

But, again, there was the odd use of timeouts in the first half; there was the same slow and shellshocked start his team had in last year’s playoff loss; there was the offensive game plan that didn’t seem any more creative or daring or nontraditional, despite the adverse situation. A team that wants to be in the Super Bowl, and which talks openly about its grand ambitions and expectations of success, shouldn’t ever find itself down 31-7 in a game. Four heads.

Two-word reaction

Déjà vu.

Dumb #hottake

The Packers are the only team that gets injured, the refs are out to get them and they won’t make the playoffs.

Good quote

"They all count" – Rodgers on his 300th career touchdown pass, which was a short left-handed shovel to Montgomery from the 1-yard line.

Best photo

Encouraging thing

McCarthy and several players afterward praised the team’s resilience and character, coming back from down, 31-7, to make it a two-possession game late. Green Bay won the second half, 16-10, showing that it can hang with Atlanta – though the Falcons appeared to take a more conservative approach after building their big halftime lead. But an admirable effort, still.

Alarming thing

The Packers confirmed they are no longer the team to beat in the NFC. Though they haven’t been to the Super Bowl since the 2010 season, they are routinely picked by various media outlets to win the conference, and they have generally been considered the NFC’s best team. The Falcons, though, have made it clear that they own that title now, which might not be a bad thing for a Green Bay squad that tends to play better as an overlooked underdog.  

Looking ahead

With a 1-1 record, the Packers return home this week to host the 0-2 Cincinnati Bengals at Lambeau Field on Sunday (3:25 p.m. CT on CBS). Then, Green Bay will be on a short week, playing the Bears in Chicago the following Thursday.

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, 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.