The Green Bay Packers have become quite the buzzkill. At least as far as the Falcons are concerned.
The Falcons still haven’t recovered from the Packers’ last visit, the 48-21 devastation wreaked in last year’s playoff game.
Sunday night, here they came again, turning a dominating Falcons start into a decisive Packers finish. The 25-14 Packer win begged myriad questions, including:
Is Aaron Rodgers the best quarterback in pro football history, or does the Falcons’ secondary just make him appear so?
Are these Packers the best team in NFL annals, or do the Falcons have a knack for making them look superb?
Are the Falcons as awful as they look against the Packers, or just victims of a terrible matchup?
Is the Falcons coaching staff incompetent, or is the Packers’ brain trust comprised of geniuses?
Are the Packers en route to another Super Bowl win, and will the Falcons ever recover from their visits?
Or, does everything boil down to one single, simple question: how could a game that began so perfectly wind up so abysmally?
For the initial 17:34 of game time, the Falcons resembled their old, 13-3, pre-Packer playoff pratfall selves. They even resembled the team that beat Green Bay here, 20-17, last November.
They played Falcons football. They ran the ball. They ran the clock. They kept the Packers offense off the field. They took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in 13 plays. They ran 6:45 off the clock. They converted three third downs. They led 7-0.
On the Packers’ eighth play, Brent Grimes forced a Ryan Grant fumble, and Vance Walker recovered for Atlanta.
This time, the Falcons drove 60 yards in 10 plays. They ran 6:05 off the clock. So efficient were the Falcons that they faced third down a single time: third and two at the Packers 5.
The Falcons led on the scoreboard, 14-0; in yardage, 140-50; and in time of possession, 12:50 to 4:44.
On their third possession, Matt Ryan threw incomplete twice (no run!) before hitting Harry Douglas for 47 yards. But Tyson Clabo was holding on the play, and that effectively ended the Falcons’ offense for the evening.
In those first two drives, the Falcons amassed half of their first downs for the entire game, 140 of their 251 total yards, and 65 of their 95 rushing yards.
“I think it was a combination of the penalties and missed assignments,” Jason Snelling told the AJC. “We slowed ourselves down. It’s something that we have to go back out there and work on.”
Did Green Bay make any adjustments? “No,” replied Snelling. “Everything we practiced all week, they did, and we were able to pick it up.”
Head coach Mike Smith echoed Snelling’s sentiment at his post game press conference. “The way we played the first quarter is the way you want to play football. Then, after that, it wasn’t the way we wanted to go out there and play.
“We made too many mistakes and uncharacteristic penalties at bad times.”
Do you find this curious? The Falcons fashioned their 13-3 record in 2010 by playing mistake-free, penalty-free football. So far this year they’ve abandoned their identity. How does that happen over a single off-season, even one marred by a lockout?
The offensive meltdown ruined an extraordinary effort fashioned by the Falcons defense. They kept the Packers out of the end zone until only 3:42 remained in the third quarter, clinging to a 14-9 lead.
But you won’t beat Aaron Rodgers and his mates with 14 points. Rodgers found James Jones with a 70-yard touchdown pass that gave the Packers the lead for good, then opened the fourth quarter with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings to make it 22-14.
“We needed that spark,” Rodgers told Vic Ketchman of packers.com. “That one big play kind of got us going.”
But Rodgers knew the big play would come. He played with the calm that comes from success. He wasn’t panicked by the Falcons’ early lead. “We had to withstand that first wave of attack from them and, when we do, get back into the game.”
No problem there. Rodgers wound up with 396 yards passing, completing 26 of 39 passes to a dozen different receivers. At one point, the Packers called 15 straight passing plays. How Rodgers does it, with minimal ground support, remains mystifying.
If nothing else, the Falcons proved conclusively that the only way to beat Rodgers is to keep him on the bench.
For four quarters, not just one.