Packers' offense plays imperfect game

Ryan Wood
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Green Bay Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski (22) fumbles the ball after Atlanta Falcons' Jalen Collins forced the ball free during second quarter during the NFC Championship game Sunday, January 22, 2017, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga. Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (56) is in on the play.

ATLANTA - The scouting report for Aaron Ripkowski is simple: He will not be tackled.

He has carried defenders on his back this season. He has run over them. He carries the football more like a truck than fullback, always driving downhill.

So it was at the end of the Green Bay Packers' second drive in their 44-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game Sunday. Ripkowski ran through a defensive lineman’s arm tackle after three yards. He lowered his shoulder and plowed over a safety after six yards.

Ripkowski approached the 10-yard line, and it looked too familiar. Another chest-pounding highlight for the Packers' backfield thumper. But 12 yards downfield, with three Falcons defenders draped on his back, the fullback who will not be tackled did something for the first time in his career.

Ripkowski fumbled.

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He still was sick about it more than three hours later, with the Falcons’ cheers ringing into the Packers' locker room.

“That run,” Ripkowski said, “you’ll tell yourself, ‘You should’ve just went down and took the yards that you had.’ But you’re a competitor, and you always want to fight for extra yards. So it’s tough to tell yourself to go down, but now I’ll learn from it. I’ll be a little more wary.

“If I get the opportunity again, I’ll make sure if anyone’s around — if there’s any duress — I’ll just go down.”

Ripkowski will not get the opportunity again this season.

The Packers ran off the table at the Georgia Dome, falling 60 minutes short of the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons. There isn’t a single play that would’ve made a difference Sunday. The Packers were thoroughly annihilated in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score.

But Ripkowski’s fumble was the turning point. With a 10-0 deficit, the Packers needed points. They looked poised to score their first touchdown.

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Then they coughed up the ball.

“Offensively,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “we needed to match them.”

This Packers offense didn’t want to hear about their defense. The defense that gave up 44 points in 48 minutes. The defense that forced its offense to be perfect — or else — playing on the road inside a dome.

Yes, the Packers' defense was a noncompetitive mess. Yes, the Packers' defense allowed six touchdowns in the Falcons' first eight drives.

To the Packers' offense, it did not matter.

The offense entered Sunday knowing it couldn’t rely on its defense. Not on the road against the NFL’s top-scoring offense, anyway.

“We knew they were a high-powered offense,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “We talked about it all week, ‘We have to take advantage of every drive we have.’ I think last time we played them (in October), we only had nine drives. It felt like this week we were going to have to score every drive.”

Lang was wrong. The Packers didn’t have to score on every drive. Just eight out of nine.

That’s what they were up against Sunday. So when they entered the halftime locker room trailing 24-0, it wasn’t the first number they focused on.

This red-hot Packers offense was shocked to be scoreless.

“Got off to a slow start," tight end Jared Cook said. "You can’t get a slow start against an offense — or a defense — like that. It was our fault. We should’ve put points up when we had the opportunity. We just didn’t.

“We knew their offense was playing really good, so it could potentially become a shootout.”

The Packers shouldn’t have been scoreless, of course.

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They came out in the second half and marched up and down the field against an outmatched Falcons defense. After opening the third quarter with a punt, the Packers scored touchdowns on their next three drives.

The offense started the game in rhythm. On their first drive, the Packers marched 52 yards down to the Falcons 23-yard line. That’s where they faced their initial third down.

Third down would be huge Sunday. The Falcons converted 10 of their first 12, which may be even more impressive than their drive chart. The Packers, facing third-and-4, needed to match.

Instead, the Falcons showed a blitz that center Corey Linsley said the Packers hadn’t seen on film. With defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux lined up across from Linsley, linebacker Deion Jones rushed the right A gap. He was unblocked, wrapping both arms around Rodgers, who was forced to throw it away.

Linsley said the Packers' protection “blocked it right” according to their call up front. The Packers double-teamed Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney with left tackle David Bakhtiari and left guard Lane Taylor. Had Linsley released Babineaux to Taylor, he could have picked up Jones.

“We made a call,” Linsley said, “and we stuck to the call, but we could’ve made a better call to pick it up. They hadn’t shown it, really. And it was a good blitz. Hats off to them. But we executed the call. I probably could’ve came off, but again it wasn’t the call we made.”

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When kicker Mason Crosby missed a 41-yard field goal, momentum was already tilting for the Falcons. There wasn’t one play that led to the lopsided halftime score and eventual blowout.

Jones’ blitz, Crosby’s miss and Ripkowski’s fumble were too much to match the Falcons. The Packers had no choice but to play perfect Sunday, something they were capable of doing.

Instead, they were simply ordinary.

“The first quarter,” Lang said, “I think it just took all the juice out of us. They go down and score, we come back. We’ve got a good drive going, stall out and miss a field goal. Next drive, we have another good drive going, cough up the football, turn it over. Next thing you know, it’s 17-0.

“So I think it just snowballed pretty quick on us, put our defense in a tough situation obviously, not scoring any points and not letting them keep the momentum. Just a disappointing day all the way around. You can’t blame one side of the ball more than the other. Just not a good day.”

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