GREEN BAY - Seven passes before the throw that set an NFL record, the football left Aaron Rodgers’ hands and traveled a line straight to Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones.
The play had pick-6 written all over it, and it was far from ideal timing. Not only were the Green Bay Packers leading 20-7, but Rodgers was approaching New England quarterback Tom Brady’s record for consecutive pass attempts without an interception. Rodgers’ pass intended for running back Jamaal Williams at the left sideline looked like a clear pick, but Jones gave the Packers quarterback a little assist.
He dropped the football.
“That happens from time to time,” Rodgers said, “when you get a good streak of interception-free passes, there’s going to be a couple.”
Rodgers then mentioned a near interception one week earlier on a pass intended for rookie receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
There have been close calls, but Rodgers managed to eclipse Brady on Sunday. His 359th consecutive pass, which broke the record, came on a 24-yard touchdown to receiver Randall Cobb.
“He’s rewriting history books left and right, year in and year out,” Cobb said. “Obviously, we have so much history around here. It’s always going to be a special place to have that tradition.”
Rodgers threw 32 passes without an interception Sunday, extending his record streak to 368. He has 23 touchdowns against only one interception on the year. His lone interception came Week 4 against Buffalo, and it was deflected – twice.
The streak could have ended short of a record Sunday. Rodgers appreciated that it didn’t.
“Thankfully,” he said, “he took his eyes back, but didn’t get a great look at it the whole time. You need a little bit of good fortune when you have a streak like that.”
No one inside the Packers' locker room was surprised to see No. 62 barreling 20 yards down the field after his quarterback absorbed a hit to the right shoulder and head area despite giving himself up on a slide, and no one in the locker room was surprised to see Lucas Patrick take on all comers in defense of Rodgers.
“Oh no, no, no, I’m not shocked all – that is Lucas,” running back Aaron Jones said with a smile. “I love it. I was like man, I love that right there. He’s going to let you know.”
The Packers' offensive linemen said things were “getting chippy” prior to Rodgers’ 21-yard scramble down to the Falcons’ 27-yard line with about 30 seconds left in the first half, and while two of the linemen didn’t feel that Falcons safety Brian Poole tried to hit Rodgers maliciously, it was close enough to warrant a strong reaction.
“I’m always trying to chase the ball, finish, protect our ball carriers and you see ’12' slide – antennae’s go up anytime you see ’12’ slide,” Patrick said. “All our guys but especially him. Honestly, instincts kicked in and I just bolted down there, had my eyes on the guy. You just gotta let them know that’s not going to fly with us. It doesn’t matter if it’s our Day 1 starters or every backup is in. That’s the kind of line we got. I don’t take much (expletive).”
Poole wasn’t flagged for the hit, and for his part Rodgers said he wasn’t hit in the head and didn’t think there was ill intent.
To some degree, the Packers felt Falcons linebacker Deion Jones escalated the situation by jumping on Patrick’s back. Right tackle Jason Spriggs saw Jones begin twisting Patrick’s helmet from behind, so Spriggs pulled him off – leading Jones to punch Spriggs in the face.
“I’m not a ref, but I’m pretty sure that’s not supposed to be there,” Spriggs said of the punch.
Jones was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, as was Packers center Corey Linsley.
“I love it, I really do,” Rodgers said of his team rallying behind him. “The hit, as it often does, looks worse at full speed than it actually was, you know? He didn’t hit me in the head, I don’t think. It seemed like more shoulder as far as the blow. But I was into my slide, it seemed. Potentially a tad bit unnecessary, but Poole is a tough player. He plays hard. I don’t think it was disrespectful at all but I do love my guys coming in."
On the periphery of the scrum between the heavies, Packers tight end Robert Tonyan was involved in a shoving match, as was Cobb.
“I saw the whole thing – I just don’t like that. I don’t play with that kind of stuff, especially to the back of the head or the side of the head” Tonyan said. “I mean, when you hit ’12,’ everyone’s kind of triggered on that. I did that in college with my quarterback. I don’t play that when someone gives themselves up like that and someone takes a cheap shot, trying to be that tough guy. ... I just went over there and kind of just saw what was up and it kind of took off from there. We’re protecting what’s right and he’s our leader.”
Added Linsley: “We felt like there was a lot of jawing before that and it’s all in the game. They’re not dirty guys. They’re not bad people. It’s just the heat of the game; we’ll watch the film and see how it was, but just the flow of the game and how it was at that point, we felt like that was too aggressive of a play and we had to defend our guy.”
Rodgers was not injured on the play and the offsetting penalties didn’t negate Rodgers’ rush – Mason Crosby hit a 48-yard field goal a play later to make it 20-7 going into the half – so it was water under the bridge for most players after the game. But the offensive line room might have some settling up to do later in the week, especially because Linsley was surprised he was called for unsportsmanlike and not Patrick.
“Oh, really? Wow. Sweet,” Linsley said. “I’ll take it for him.”
“Oh, that was him? Hmm,” Patrick said of Linsley’s penalty downfield. “I cooked him dinner (Saturday) night. We’ll see.”
Nobody could have accused Joe Philbin’s approach to Sunday’s game as being conservative.
Before 90 seconds could run off the clock, the Packers interim head coach had extinguished both his challenges. Philbin tossed the red challenge flag on consecutive plays during the Atlanta Falcons' opening drive. Both plays stood, meaning the Packers were not only charged two timeouts, but they had no more challenges left the rest of the game.
“I had enough big decisions to make during the course of the day,” Philbin jokingly said, “that I didn’t want to have to make anymore. So I kind of got that out of the way. Plus the flag didn’t fit very good in my pocket. I didn’t know if it was going to fall out.”
As surprising as the two, quick challenges were, both plays were close.
On the first, it appeared rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander was beaten off the line of scrimmage, but it looked like he recovered enough to knock the ball out of Julio Jones’ hands. On the second, Jones’ left foot came dangerously close to stepping on the sideline, which would have been out of bounds.
“The first one,” Philbin said, “certainly looked like, I was surprised we didn’t win it. but, again, I’ve been surprised before.”
Neither replay review went the Packers’ way. Philbin acknowledged two challenges so early in the game could have been detrimental.
“We’ll evaluate it,” Philbin said, “but might have been wise to hold onto that other one. But, we were right there. I kind of had a look at it, the other guys, even on the field, had a look at it. They’re right on our sideline…
“We’ll do some challenge education during the course of the week. Certainly looks like I need it.”