The Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons will be different teams by the time the playoffs roll around in January.
But like last season, an early loss to the Falcons in Atlanta could force the Packers to make another long trip south if there’s a rematch in the postseason.
Sunday night’s convincing defeat at Mercedes-Benz Stadium revealed how important playing postseason games at Lambeau Field will be for the Packers, who didn’t have the team speed or athleticism to keep up with the high-powered Falcons on the fast track inside their brand new stadium.
Matt Ryan threw for 252 yards and a touchdown, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 145 total yards and three touchdowns and Julio Jones caught five passes for 108 yards, with 95 coming during a dominant first half for the Falcons offense. The early proceedings often resembled the track meet put on by Ryan and his impressive cast of weapons during last January’s NFC title game.
The end result was a closer scoreline but a similar feeling inside the Packers locker room.
“We didn’t do enough,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I know it’s one game, but it’s unfortunate, especially when you want to test yourself against the elite.”
The Falcons have scored 111 points in the last three games against Green Bay in Atlanta. It might take the grass of Lambeau Field and the cold of a Wisconsin winter to slow down what the Falcons have going on offense and defense.
BOX SCORE: Falcons 34, Packers 23
No player on the Packers roster seems to understand the importance of home-field advantage in the postseason better than quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who campaigned all off-season for a fast start and a legitimate run at the top seed in the NFC. The NFL’s two-time MVP is sick and tired of trying to get back to the Super Bowl by going on the road and playing playoff games away from home in January.
Rodgers stepped to the podium on Sunday night and once again beat the drum for Green Bay’s need to play the big games in the postseason at Lambeau Field.
“I think we can beat anybody at home,” Rodgers said. “We don’t look at it as closing the gap (with the Falcons). Obviously, if it comes down to some sort of tiebreaker when we get down into December and January, this game could be a big one, and we might have to come back here. But I think we can beat anybody at home.”
At the very least, Sunday night’s loss in Atlanta reduced the margin for error over the final 14 games. The Falcons are 2-0 and now hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Packers, who will return to Green Bay for back-to-back home games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Chicago Bears before a pair of important road trips to Dallas and Minnesota to start October.
Back in 2014, a Week 1 loss to the Seattle Seahawks broke the regular-season tiebreaker and forced the Packers to return to Seattle for the NFC title game. It could be déjà vu — with the setting of a postseason rematch being dictated by a September defeat — if the Packers don’t leap Atlanta in the standings over the next three and a half months.
The lesson was also learned last year. The Falcons finished at 11-5; the Packers at 10-6. Atlanta’s come-from-behind win in October eventually provided the difference in the final standings. Flip the regular season result and the Falcons would have been Green Bay bound in an NFC title game.
The Falcons still look like the class of the conference in 2017, but they have plenty of potential roadblocks on the schedule, including a road game against the Detroit Lions this week and a stretch in October and November featuring four games away from Atlanta in five games. They still have to go to New England and Seattle.
The rest of the NFC is already loaded with uncertainty. The Cowboys were rock solid in Week 1 but took a significant step back in Denver in Week 2, losing 42-17 to the Broncos. The Seahawks were smacked around by the Packers in Week 1 and narrowly escaped an upset by the visiting San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The Minnesota Vikings didn’t have Sam Bradford in Pittsburgh and failed to put up much of a fight against the AFC contenders.
The Carolina Panthers are an uninspiring 2-0, with wins over the 49ers and Buffalo Bills to start the season.
All but a few teams in the conference already have one loss.
The Packers have plenty of time and opportunity to establish themselves as contenders for a top seed in the NFC, but Sunday’s loss will have them trailing the Falcons for the foreseeable future.
“It’s a long season. It’s an early game against a good team, but it’s obvious we have some work to do,” Matthews said.
Home-field advantage is a goal worth working toward, especially for a team that hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl since February of 2011. The Falcons, Cowboys and Vikings are dome teams comfortable playing in controlled conditions, and the Seahawks haven’t escaped Lambeau Field with a victory since 1999. The Packers have won playoff games away from Green Bay with Rodgers under center, but their recent record in NFC title games played on the road (1-3) speaks for itself.
Achieving the long-term goal will require a week-to-week level of focus and consistency. The Packers have to put Sunday night’s defeat in the rear-view mirror and begin preparation for the Bengals, an uncommon opponent that still hasn’t scored a touchdown in the 2017 season. Every game will be vital if the Packers want to catch the Falcons and pave the road to the Super Bowl through Green Bay come January.
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