ATLANTA – The Green Bay Packers are a good football team, but the Atlanta Falcons are a little bit better.
That’s what we learned from the Packers’ 20-17 loss Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Packers entered the game riding a four-game winning streak built on hard-nosed, disciplined, mistake-free football. But they met their match against the Falcons, who made one too many game-deciding plays.
The Packers have nothing to be ashamed of, and their overall performance would have been good enough to win against most opponents. But not against the Falcons, who own the best record in the NFL and improved to 19-3 at home under coach Mike Smith.
It would have taken a near-flawless effort to knock off the high-flying Falcons in their house, and the Packers weren’t quite up to the task.
“Coming down to play in an environment like this, you knew it was going to be hostile,” said Packers receiver Greg Jennings. “They are a very tough team at home. We felt like we played well but not well enough.”
Aaron Rodgers produced one of the best individual performances of his career with 344 passing yards and another 51 rushing yards, and guided the Packers on a spectacular 90-yard touchdown march to tie the game with 56 seconds remaining.
But for every Packers’ highlight, the Falcons always seemed to have one of their own.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan countered Rodgers by completing 24 of 28 passes and leading the Falcons to the game-winning field goal in the final minute.
The Packers committed only one turnover, but the Falcons had none. The Packers produced a dramatic fourth-down touchdown pass, but the Falcons answered with a pair of fourth-down conversions of their own that led to touchdowns.
Seemingly anything the Packers did well, the Falcons could do better.
What the Falcons do best is minimize their mistakes. And while the Packers didn’t commit many glaring errors, there were just enough to lead to their demise.
Rodgers’ fumble at the goal line in the second quarter cost the Packers at least a field goal if not a touchdown, while the Falcons didn’t give away any points.
The Packers’ kickoff team broke down in the final minute and handed Atlanta prime field position that led to the winning field goal. The Falcons, meanwhile, had no special teams lapses.
Just a play here or a missed tackle there is what makes the difference between winning and losing.
“Atlanta made one more play than we did, so we need to do a better job of making one more play than the other team in these close games,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who maintained an upbeat attitude after the game.
“We did a lot of positive things today, a lot of positive plays from a number of different players.”
The loss all but eliminates the Packers from earning homefield advantage in the playoffs and drops them into second place in the NFC North behind the Chicago Bears. But it was by no means a devastating day.
“We can go out of here with our heads high,” said cornerback Tramon Williams.
“I don’t think they (did) anything special. I think we just kind of gave them the game.”
But that’s what separates good teams from elite teams.
With five regular-season games remaining, there’s still time for the Packers to improve. It’s a must if they want to make some noise in the playoffs, and especially if they face the Falcons again.
“We’ll probably end up seeing them again, or another team of similar caliber,” said linebacker Clay Matthews, “so we’ve got to grow from this.”
Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Press-Gazette.