The Green Bay Packers’ quest to “run the table” all the way to Super Bowl LI came up short Sunday in Atlanta. A 44-21 blowout loss to the high-flying Falcons in the NFC championship game snapped an eight-game winning streak that saw the Packers rebound from a 4-6 start to win the NFC North, beat the New York Giants in the wild-card round and upset the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys in the divisional playoffs. But a potent Atlanta offense led by NFL MVP favorite Matt Ryan proved too much for the Packers’ defense, and Aaron Rodgers and the offense couldn’t keep up even with Jordy Nelson’s return to the lineup. So now it’s on to offseason matters for the Packers, who will face questions about how to shore up their deficiencies and their plans for free agents such as guard T.J. Lang (who was injured Sunday), outside linebackers Nick Perry and Julius Peppers, and tight end Jared Cook.
McGINN: Season ends with a dud
D'AMATO: No silver lining in Packers' loss
DOUGHERTY: Magic quickly disappears
RELATED: Defense again at fault in final loss
Although the Falcons dominated time of possession in the first quarter, they settled for a field goal on their second drive and led only 10-0 as the second quarter got underway. The Packers’ offense looked to be every bit as formidable as the Falcons’, with only a rare miss by kicker Mason Crosby on a 41-yard field goal attempt — which ended his NFL postseason record run at 23 straight — keeping Green Bay off the scoreboard. A touchdown seemed imminent when Rodgers hit Randall Cobb for 17 and 22 yards to put the Packers in business deep in Falcons territory. But Aaron Ripkowski, dragging tacklers along on a 12-yard rumble, was stripped of the ball by cornerback Jalen Collins, who recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchback. Instead of being down only 10-7, the Packers watched their deficit balloon to 17-0 when the Falcons marched right back down the field and scored on a 14-yard Ryan run. The Packers never got any closer.
RELATED: Offense plays imperfect game
RELATED: Patchwork WR corps unravels
GAME SUMMARY: How they scored
Nelson looked like a long shot to play early last week after suffering two broken ribs in the victory over the Giants and missing the win at Dallas. But wearing a protective vest, Nelson gamely took the field and — naturally — was targeted immediately by Rodgers for gains of 27 and 15 yards. He played through the pain and finished with six catches for 67 yards and a third-quarter touchdown. “I can’t say enough about Jordy Nelson, to get out there and compete the way he did,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
RELATED: Lang wants to be back
The Packers had done a masterful job of camouflaging an undermanned pass defense during their winning streak, but at the worst possible time, the unit again was exposed just as it was in midseason thrashings at Tennessee and Washington. Falcons star Julio Jones made life miserable for young cornerback LaDarius Gunter, catching a game-high nine passes on 12 targets for 180 yards and two touchdowns, one of them a 73-yard back-breaker on the Falcons’ second play of the second half. Rarely pressured even when the Packers blitzed, Ryan picked Green Bay apart, hitting on 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards, four TDs and no interceptions for a passer rating of 139.4.
RANTS AND RAVES
RANT: Green Bay’s defense simply could not get off the field on third down. Time and again, the Falcons delivered huge third-down plays to keep drives alive. They were 3-for-3 on their opening drive, the last a 6-yard shovel-pass TD from Ryan to Mohamed Sanu. They were 2-for-2 on their last drive of the first half, including a 5-yard TD toss to Jones. Atlanta finished 10-for-13 on third-down plays (the Packers, by comparison, were 4-for-10).
RAVE: You’ve got to tip your cap to Rodgers even on this nightmarish afternoon. Despite a banged-up receiving corps and a defense that couldn’t get him the ball back for interminable stretches, Rodgers kept battling. Facing huge deficits (31-0 at one point) that took away Green Bay’s running game and allowed Falcons pass rushers to tee off, Rodgers kept firing, completing 24 of 45 passes for 287 yards, three TDs and an interception for a passer rating of 91.6. Rodgers also led the Packers in rushing, taking advantage of Atlanta’s deep drops to gain 46 yards on four carries. Renowned for his competitive nature, Rodgers put it on full display even with the deck hopelessly stacked against him.
RANT: The Packers were besieged by injuries all season, and it only got worse Sunday. Yes, the walking wounded who were question marks during the week — Nelson, receivers Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison, and safety Morgan Burnett — were able to play. But safety Kentrell Brice suffered a shoulder injury on the opening kickoff and was declared done for the day at the start of the third quarter along with fellow safety Micah Hyde (shoulder) and left guard Lane Taylor (knee). It didn’t stop there — inside linebacker Jake Ryan (shoulder) departed in the third quarter, as did Lang (foot). By the end of the game, after losing right tackle Bryan Bulaga (possible concussion), the offensive line was so battered that defensive lineman LeTroy Guion was pressed into emergency service on the other side of the ball.
RANT: Cook made some nice plays and finished with a respectable stat line: a team-high seven receptions (on 12 targets) for 78 yards and a score. The speedy, 6-foot-5 tight end added a new dimension to the Packers’ offense this season after returning from early-season injuries, and re-signing him should be a top offseason priority. But on the first possession of the second half, with Green Bay trailing 24-0 and desperately needing to get on the board, Cook dropped two passes that resulted in a deflating three-and-out. Two plays later, Ryan hit Jones for the 73-yard touchdown that for all intents and purposes ended the game.
DID YOU NOTICE?
» Ripkowski’s lost fumble was the Packers’ first since Rodgers lost one during their Week 13 win over the Houston Texans.
» Ryan became only the fourth NFL quarterback to throw for four touchdowns and run for another in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The others: Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tobin Rote.
» Ryan’s rushing TD was his first since Week 1 of the 2012 season, according to ESPN.
» The Packers experienced some misadventures in their attempts to get back into the game via the onside kick. After the Packers scored to make it 31-7, Crosby was whistled for delay of game before an onside kick (if one were in store) even could be attempted. After Green Bay scored to pull within 37-15, Crosby’s onside attempt was snatched in full stride by Sanu, who would’ve had a clear path to the end zone if not for a touchdown-saving trip-up by rookie Marwin Evans. Another onside attempt also was snagged by Sanu.