ATLANTA — Aaron Rodgers choked up. Not about Sunday’s 44-21 NFC Championship Game loss to the Atlanta Falcons — not that the Green Bay Packers quarterback wasn’t disappointed, of course — but about how his friend and No. 1 wide receiver Jordy Nelson played just two weeks after suffering broken ribs.
“I’m so proud of Jordy,” Rodgers said before pausing to gather himself. “It’s incredible that he was out there.”
Nelson, who suffered at least two broken ribs in the team’s Jan. 8 NFC Wild Card win over the New York Giants and missed last week’s NFC Divisional win over Dallas, ended up catching six passes for 67 yards and a touchdown Sunday. He played wearing a Kevlar vest and extra padding that was obvious underneath his No. 87 jersey.
“All along I was planning on (playing), all the way back from the Giants game, to be honest with you. I was able to get the nod and go out there and play,” Nelson said. “Everyone at this point in the league is doing it. You play as many games as we do, everyone’s going to be banged up. When it comes to playoff time, everyone has to gut it out and do what they can to be on the field and make plays.”
Fellow wide receivers Davante Adams (ankle) and Geronimo Allison (hamstring) also played, despite being questionable throughout the week. Adams confessed that his ankle “felt pretty bad all game,” and once the game was out of reach, all three headed to the bench.
Asked if the receivers’ lack of practice time hurt them on Sunday, Rodgers replied, “I don’t think so. We got Jordy going early, hit him on the first big plays there. He felt good. The fact that he’s out there is just a tribute to him, putting his body on the line — and ‘Tae’ as well. To have those guys battling out there was pretty incredible.”
Meanwhile, the Packers lost a whopping seven players — six of them starters — to injuries during the course of the game: Left guard Lane Taylor (knee), right guard T.J. Lang (foot), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (possible concussion), defensive back Micah Hyde (shoulder), inside linebacker Jake Ryan (shoulder), safety Kentrell Brice (shoulder) and running back Ty Montgomery (ribs). Brice and Montgomery came back briefly but then left the game again.
“It's never easy to watch your players get injured, especially if it's in a serious nature. Frankly, I'm a little numb to it,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “This is kind of how we've had to deal with it. We've been able to overcome it. Today, we could not.”
It got so bad that nose tackle Letroy Guion, who hadn’t played offensive line since high school, played right guard after Bulaga’s departure left the team with only four healthy linemen.
“The other guys were telling me what to do,” Guion said. “I play against offensive linemen, so I kind of know the steps that they take. I was going to be OK on that part, but I really don't know the plays.”
Tears of a guard
FOX Sports’ cameras caught Lang sobbing on the bench after his second-half foot injury. Lang, who broke his left foot earlier this season and missed three games, re-injured the foot but wasn’t sure if it was broken again or not.
“It feels pretty similar to the first time,” he said. “It never fully healed in the first place. The past month, I kept aggravating it a couple times. I don’t know.”
But Lang’s tears weren’t so much from the pain in his foot as they were from his uncertain future. Set to be an unrestricted free agent following his first Pro Bowl selection, Lang is no sure bet to return — even though he wants to.
“It was everything combined — pain, obviously a lot of unknowns this offseason. I think everything hit me at once,” Lang said. “Obviously, disappointed in the way today went. A lot of things were going through my mind when I hurt my foot. Hoping it wasn’t my last play putting that helmet on. It’s tough. It’s just tough.”
Kicker Mason Crosby (who missed a 41-yard field goal on the opening drive), fullback Aaron Ripkowski (who fumbled inside the Falcons’ 20-yard line) and Ryan (who failed to recover a Falcons fumble at Atlanta’s 40-yard line) all had regrettable first-half mistakes that might’ve prevented the game from getting out of hand before halftime.
Crosby’s miss ended an NFL-record streak of 23 consecutive successful postseason field goals. He hadn’t missed a playoff field-goal attempt since the Packers’ NFC Divisional win here during the 2010 playoffs.
“I'm not going to play the would've, could've, should've game. The game went how it did. Obviously, my job is to make that kick, and get us points there on the first drive,” Crosby said. “I feel sick about it. I wish I would've hit that through. I had a great year. This team had such a great run. Obviously, it hurts.”
Ripkowski’s fumble came as he was fighting for extra yardage near the Falcons’ 10-yard line with the Packers still within striking distance at 10-0. The Falcons scored to make it 17-0 on the ensuing possession.
“Of course, it’s a big momentum swing,” Ripkowski said. “You never want to turn the ball over, and that was really tough for us to bounce back from.”
And Ryan had a chance to recover a fumble off a botched trick play but somehow lost the ball after seemingly diving on it for an easy recovery.
“I was almost there but the ball is 20 inches and it bounces in different ways,” Ryan said. “Stuff like that happens but you’ve got to execute when you get those opportunities. When you get them, you’ve got to (capitalize).”
Shields hopes to still play
Cornerback Sam Shields, who suffered a concussion in the Sept. 11 regular-season opener and never played again, was on the Packers’ sideline — as was running back and fellow injured reserve resident Eddie Lacy (ankle) — for the game. Afterward, Shields said he wants to continue his career, despite the fact that he still has occasional headaches.
“I’m thinking it’s not over. I’ve still got more (football) in me,” Shields said. Asked why he’d keep playing after four NFL concussions and two in a nine-month span, Shields replied, “I understand why you ask that. I don’t know. I just love the game, man, and I feel that I can get back out there and play.”
The Packers are unlikely to take a chance on Shields and could release him this offseason with one year left on his contract.
Looking for a replay
It wasn’t that vital of a play in the final analysis, but Rodgers took exception with the 15-yard facemask penalty he received for — he said — inadvertently pulling Falcons cornerback Robert Alford’s helmet at the end of a run inside the Atlanta 5-yard line. The Packers managed to score their third touchdown later, thanks in part to a 17-yard pass interference penalty on Alford on the next play, cutting the lead to 44-21.
Earlier in the game, a late hit flag thrown after Rodgers was hit on a slide was picked up after referee Bill Vinovich saw the replay on the scoreboard, Rodgers claimed.
“That was my first non-delay of game penalty in my career except for one I had in junior college,” Rodgers explained. “I went for the stiff arm, and I’m not a stiff arm connoisseur, (so) my thumb slipped through his facemask, his helmet was on loosely and his helmet came off.
“I just told the ref, he picked up the flag when they looked at the JumboTron when I scrambled and did kind of a weird in-between forward and front slide and the guy hit me in the head and they picked up that penalty. So I just said, ‘Why don’t you look up at the JumboTron and pick up this penalty, because it obviously wasn’t an excessive blow to the head there.’ (It wasn’t) deserving of a 15-yard penalty in my opinion.”