ATLANTA — Two days earlier, Aaron Rodgers had spoken of adversity, and how he relished it. The Green Bay Packers quarterback had watched his team turn its season around with a remarkable run-the-table finish, then put together impressive, back-to-back playoff victories for the first time since the 2010 team did so en route to Super Bowl XLV.
So, Rodgers said, it didn’t matter that his wide receiving corps spent more time in the training room than on the practice field throughout the week. It didn’t matter that his team was going to have to earn a trip to Houston by beating a very good Atlanta Falcons team in the boisterous Georgia Dome, or that he and the offense were likely going to have to score a multitude of points against the NFL’s most potent offense. And it didn’t matter that Rodgers was the latest to be battling a virus that had made its way around the locker room.
“I like the challenge. I like when the odds are stacked against you. I’ve always enjoyed that role,” Rodgers said. “Now, around here, we haven’t been the underdog too many times. But we are this week. We’re going into a tough environment and there’s expectation outside of the building that they’re going to win. So I like our role, and I like our chances.”
Forty-eight hours later, there was absolutely nothing to like about the Packers’ crushing 44-21 defeat at the hands of the Falcons, a buzz-kill loss that Rodgers insisted hadn’t undone everything they’d accomplished during the against-the-odds eight-game winning that’d gotten them here.
“If you’re not the champion every year, it’s a little disappointing,” Rodgers said afterward. “Obviously, we haven’t been for a number of years now. I felt great about our football team the entire season.”
But there was very little to feel good about Sunday, as the Packers (12-7) finally bit off more adversity than they could chew — some of it of their own creation — and are headed into the offseason while the Falcons (13-5) head to NRG Stadium to face the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl LI.
“We ran into a buzz saw. (The Falcons) performed great and we didn't have enough to keep up with them,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “This is clearly not the way we anticipated, or prepared for our season to end. Frankly, we ran out of gas.”
The postseason loss was the Packers’ eighth of the McCarthy Era, and unlike the difficult losses of recent seasons — of his team’s previous seven playoff losses, five had heartbreakingly come on the game’s final play — this one got out of hand stunningly early.
“We needed to keep pace with those guys. We felt confident coming in here we'd be able to score points,” McCarthy said. “We got behind; we got into a game that you just don't want to play, especially in this stadium.
“When you get in those types of games, it's difficult to overcome those deficits.”
Forget the Green Bay fog that messed with their travel plans, or the fact that the team had to order military-grade Kevlar so No. 1 wide receiver Jordy Nelson could play with broken ribs, or that by game’s end they’d lost three offensive linemen to injuries — Pro Bowl right guard T.J. Lang (foot), left guard Lane Taylor (knee) and right tackle Bryan Bulaga (concussion) — and were forced to play nose tackle Letroy Guion at right guard.
This game was lost by an overmatched defense that couldn’t solve presumptive NFL MVP Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offense, and by the kind of untimely, spirit-crushing mistakes the Packers had so brilliantly avoided over the past two months.
“We didn't stop them at all defensively,” McCarthy said of the first half. “They pretty much controlled the clock.”
Asked if the defense was good enough to win a title, outspoken defensive lineman Mike Daniels hesitated before saying simply, “There’s a lot of things we’ve got to do better. And obviously we didn’t do them today.”
And asked if the game could’ve been a shootout instead of a blowout if not for two early, uncharacteristic mistakes, wide receiver Davante Adams replied, “There’s a lot more that goes into it. It’s just the momentum. When you start making plays, it catches on. When you have negative things that go on, kind of the same thing happens. You have to dig deeper and find a way to make plays. It just took too long for us to do that.”
After the Packers won the toss and deferred, the Falcons went 80 yards on the opening drive for a touchdown. When the Packers’ first drive stalled just shy of the red zone, kicker Mason Crosby, whose two 50-plus yard field goals in the final 2 minutes of last week’s win and who’d made an NFL-record 23 consecutive postseason field-goal attempts, was wide-right on a 41-yarder — a bad omen that left the Packers with an empty opening possession.
And when the defense held the Falcons to a mere field goal on the ensuing drive — little victories, you know — to keep the score at 10-0, the Packers again drove into Atlanta territory.
On first-and-10 from the Atlanta 23-yard line, fullback Aaron Ripkowski bulldozed his way on a 12-yard gain, only to be stripped of the ball at the end of the run. The Falcons recovered in the end zone — or so the officials ruled — for a touchback and promptly drove for another touchdown — a 14-yard Ryan run, his first rushing touchdown since 2012 — to make it 17-0.
The fumble was just the third Packers turnover since their winning streak began on Nov. 28 at Philadelphia.
“That’s the what-if game. But it is definitely uncharacteristic of our football team,” Rodgers said of the two mistakes. “Unfortunately a game like this comes down to the little details. If you’re not on and you’re making little mistakes like that, it’s going to be tough to win against a really tough offense.”
Even so, the Packers had time to rally.
After going three-and-out on their third possession, they squandered another chance at a momentum-changing play when the Falcons’ Taylor Gabriel fumbled on a trick play on which he was supposed to take a direct snap while coming in motion. Packers linebacker Jake Ryan had every chance to pounce on it, but Gabriel somehow got it back. Instead of the defense giving Rodgers the ball at Atlanta’s 40-yard line, the ensuing punt pinned the Packers at their own 10.
When the Falcons scored again after Packers defensive backs Marwin Evans and LaDarius Gunter dropped potential interceptions three plays apart, it was just a matter of time before the confetti was flying and the Falcons were celebrating. If there was any doubt, the Packers’ three-and-out to start the second half — and Julio Jones’ weaving, tackle-breaking 73-yard touchdown on Atlanta’s first possession of the second half — made sure of that.
“We feel confident, with our offense, with Aaron Rodgers, that we can score with anybody. We needed to do that today and we didn't get that done,” McCarthy said. “We didn't play very well. But I tell you what, we're one tough football team. It's a great group to coach. We didn't play our best football today, we didn't overcome the things we needed to overcome, and Atlanta played great. So that's what happened.”