Green Bay Packers B.J. Raji (90) cheers the touchdown of fullback John Kuhn (30) against the Atlanta Falcons during the second quarter of the NFC divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011. Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
ATLANTA – The Green Bay Packers are 60 minutes away from playing in the fifth Super Bowl in their history after a 48-21 rout of the NFC's top seed, the Atlanta Falcons in a divisional playoff game.
The team will have to travel to either Seattle or Chicago for the NFC title game and the right to its first Super Bowl appearance since January 1998.
“This is our dream, this is what we play for,” defensive end Ryan Pickett said. “We’re hungry. It’s not slowing down now.
“We’ve got a very determined team that overcame a lot this year. I think it just made us grow as a team.”
The Packers have endured plenty of trials and tribulations along the way. It began with a 51-45 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC wild-card game last year. The doubts were completely reasonable as the Packers lost back-to-back overtime games against the Redskins and Dolphins, and later a loss in Detroit. Coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers were questioned as the team seemed to fold in close games as all six regular-season losses came by four points or less.
Then there was the loss of starting running back Ryan Grant, starting tight end Jermichael Finley, starting safety Morgan Burnett, starting linebacker Nick Barnett as a total of 15 players ended the regular season on injured reserve.
Johnny Jolly, a starting defensive end in 2009, was suspended by the league before the season even started.
“It makes it so much sweeter,” Pickett said. “People counted us out earlier with all our injuries and things like that. We had an up and down season and kept fighting and kept believing.
“To be at this point is like a miracle. We all came together as a team. It’s like a storybook.”
There were players at nearly every position that stepped into roles different than they expected. Linebacker Desmond Bishop was thrust into the lineup when Barnett went down and eventually earned a four-year, $18 million extension with his play. He tied for a team-high six tackles and recovered a fumble on Saturday.
“It’s a crazy feeling,” Bishop said. “We said back in March we had a goal to set – we’re trying to get to Dallas. … We’re getting close. You can feel it … the electricity.
“Personally, I couldn’t be more happy. Legacies are set in the playoffs.”
Safety Charlie Peprah was waived injured at the end of the 2009 training camp and appeared in just two games with the Falcons last year. He returned to Green Bay as a reserve and ended the season as a starter.
“This is what you dream about when you’re a kid. I’m just having fun now. Don’t want to stop now.
“I just want to keep getting better, too. The better I get, the better I make the team. That’s how I look at it.”
John Kuhn rushed for a 1-yard touchdown with 6:06 remaining in the second quarter with a new twist on a heavy backfield.
Kuhn lined up behind Rodgers with fullback Quinn Johnson (263 pounds) off to the right. Directly besides Johnson was 337-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji.
Johnson and Raji attacked the right side of the line of scrimmage and Kuhn followed the massive entourage into the end zone.
“Coach McCarthy, after pregame was like, just move when you see the ball snapped and make sure you keep driving your feet in the hole because you don’t want to clog the whole because John needs to get through,” Raji said. “I took off and the first color I saw that was a different color, I just drove into the end zone."
The play was the first time this season Raji has lined up on offense.
“They told me later in the week I was going to go in,” Raji said. “I went in the offensive meeting room for a little bit, sat down they told me what to do and I left.
“Real fun. Real fun.”
Special teams gaffe
The Packers had all of the momentum and the Georgia Dome quieted after Rodgers and Jordy Nelson connected on a 6-yard touchdown to tie the score at 7 with 12:04 left in the second quarter.
It didn’t take long for the decibel level spike.
Falcons return man Eric Weems caught the ensuing kickoff 2 yards deep in the end zone and sprinted in a straight line between the hashmarks. Peprah had a shot and missed. Diyral Briggs had a shot, and missed.
“I was too aggressive as the safety,” Peprah said. “I tried to shoot a gap and picked the wrong game. He had two to choose from. I shot the other one.
“I could have stopped that play myself if I would have hung back a little bit.”
The Falcons snatched back the lead as Weems went 102 yards to the end zone. The score was the longest kickoff return for a score in NFL playoff history.
Inactive for the Packers on Saturday: third quarterback Graham Harrell, safety Atari Bigby, running back Dimitri Nance, fullback Korey Hall, cornerback Josh Gordy, linebacker Frank Zombo, offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith and offensive lineman Nick McDonald.
Safety Nick Collins left the game with cramps but returned.
Cornerback Pat Lee suffered a hip injury and didn’t return.
Kuhn left with a stinger late and did not come back to the game.
Rodgers cramped up and the coaching staff pulled him as a precaution in the fourth quarter.
Cornerback Sam Shields had the wind knocked out of him in the second half, but continued to play.
“Let me say this about No. 34 the fullback (Ovie Mughelli). He was talking real crazy about how soft we were and we came in here and showed him. That’s what happens when you talk a big game.”