Hot start just enough for Packers to hold off Falcons
It's a good thing the Green Bay Packers pulled off another fast start Monday night at Lambeau Field.
They needed every yard of it to offset a lackadaisical finish.
As has been the case this season at home, the Packers dominated the first 30 minutes against Atlanta Falcons before the Falcons' offense exploded in the second half. After watching a 24-point halftime lead evaporate, Green Bay held on for a closer-than-expected 43-37 victory in front of 77,512 at Lambeau Field.
Undefeated at home, the 31 points the Packers scored in the first half marked the sixth consecutive game they've scored 23 or more points to start a game at home, an NFL record for a single season. For the season, they've outscored opponents 198-51 in the first half of home games.
They would need all of that production to fend off the Falcons, who turned the tables on Green Bay in the second half by putting up 30 points and 304 yards with receiver Julio Jones wreaking havoc on the Packers' secondary.
Fresh off a 168-yard performance against Arizona, Jones topped 100 yards in both halves, finishing with 259 receiving yards on 11 catches. It was the most production ever allowed by the Packers to an opposing receiver.
The Packers' offense wasn't able to replicate its fast start in the second half, but managed 502 yards against the NFL's worst-ranked defense to ride out their ninth win in the last 10 games.
"Obviously the big plays, we'll look at that," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy of the defense. "I think they hit us on a couple double moves. You know, our boundary communication was poor.
"But we won the game and that's what good teams do. We talk about it all the time, we've got to find ways to win, and we've been doing a good job of that at home."
The Falcons teased keeping a safety down near the line of scrimmage before dropping into a Cover-2 look, but that didn't fool Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers stayed with his running game, handing the ball to Eddie Lacy for 22- and 12-yard gains on the offense's first possession.
The Packers took what the Falcons gave them on the ground in the first half, rushing for 110 yards on 17 carries with two scores, including James Starks' 3-yard effort to start the scoring with 11:13 left in the first quarter.
When the Packers needed to pass against the two-high look, they still were able to. Andrew Quarless caught a 30-yard pass from Rodgers in the middle of the field on third-and-17 to extend the Packers' second series, which ended in a Lacy 1-yard touchdown.
Safety Morgan Burnett picked off Matt Ryan in the second quarter and returned the pass to the Falcons' 15 to set up the Packers' next score, which came on a 1-yard pass to Lacy. The Packers' capped their first-half scoring with a 10-yard completion to Jordy Nelson.
After not scoring a touchdown on four red-zone trips in last week's 26-21 win over New England, the Packers converted three opportunities in the first half. Starks' touchdown was the seventh time in the last eight games the Packers have scored on their first possession.
"Guys are coming out ready to go — that's the only thing I can put it on," said Nelson, who finished with eight catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns. "It looks easy these games, so you wonder why the other week it wasn't. It's hard every time, but we get into rhythm early, get that first first down and are able to roll."
Brad Jones blocked a Matt Bryant 53-yard field goal before halftime, but the Falcons grabbed the momentum with Ryan hitting Jones for a 79-yard completion on the first play of the third quarter.
The defense, which played most of the game in zone, forced Atlanta into a fourth-and-goal play from the 5, but Eric Weems got free for the touchdown. The Falcons were 3-for-3 on fourth downs.
Jones, who had 100 receiving yards in the first half, piled up 159 in the second half. After catching a 22-yard touchdown to cut the Packers' lead to 34-24, the defense pulled Sam Shields in favor of Davon House, who had two pass deflections against Jones in one-on-one coverage.
The Packers gained a reprieve when Jones left the game with a hip injury in the fourth quarter.
Ryan still was able to drive the Falcons' offense without Jones on a nine-play, 66-yard drive that cut the deficit to one score, 43-37, with 2:22 left. Ryan finished with a 116.9 passer rating off 24-of-39 passing for 375 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.
The Packers' defense, which had been making progress since the bye, looked more like the unit that struggled in New Orleans in allowing 465 yards, but linebacker Clay Matthews still believes it can be a championship-caliber defense.
"It's not a setback, but it's a learning opportunity and a learning experience of where we need to get better," Matthews said. "When you're going against an elite receiver you can't allow him to — I said on the field we made Matt Ryan look like Matty Ice again out there in his MVP run. He was fantastic tonight. More power to him, but a lot of that was our doing, so we have to get better."
The Packers' offense, which started slow in the second half, got the spark it needed off a shot play at the start of the fourth quarter with Rodgers hitting Nelson on a 60-yard touchdown pass. They missed the extra point, but the 40-24 cushion helped stop the bleeding.
At halftime, it didn't look like they'd need to execute a four-minute offense to close the game, but they came through in style for the third consecutive week. After Rodgers scrambled for 12 yards, backup running back James Starks broke free on a 41-yard run to the Falcons' 6-yard line.
"We felt like the offense they took it away today," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "We let it get away defensively and the offense did a really good job, especially in the end of keeping the ball in their hands and moving the ball for first down and running out the clock. Give the offense all the credit."
The Packers (10-3) maintained their one-game lead over Detroit for the NFC North lead, while Atlanta (5-8) continues to carry the banner for a putrid NFC South.
The Packers have grown accustomed to fast starts, especially at home. Monday's close call served as a reminder you have to be up for the second half, as well.
"I think in five of the games we haven't had a punt in the first half, maybe four, but that's pretty impressive and helps our defense out," Rodgers said.
"But there may have been a slight relaxation there at halftime up 24. Occasionally that can be the natural thing to do to think we're going to keep rolling on offense and our defense is going to keep stopping, but they did a good job of taking care of the football and then Matt got hot.
"It was a hot quarterback and we were able to just hang on and score enough points."