ATLANTA - In the last four minutes with the game on the line, the Green Bay Packers needed a big sack from a pass rusher or a great play by Aaron Rodgers. They got neither.
That’s the way it usually works in the NFL. Your best players have to come through in crunch time. It doesn’t matter that the frighteningly short-handed Packers went toe-to-toe with the Atlanta Falcons on the road, or that Rodgers had his best game of the season under the most adverse of circumstances.
All that matters is that none of the Packers’ best players on the field Sunday made a special play with the game on the line, so coach Mike McCarthy’s team went home with a 33-32 loss at the Georgia Dome against the NFC South Division leaders.
“I fully expected to win, put ourselves in position to win,” McCarthy said, “and I think this is an excellent illustration, as I told the team of what these tough games come down to. It’s about making plays, and making plays at key times.”
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The Packers came into this game with one of the ugliest injury lists I’ve seen in 24 years covering the team. Because of injuries and illness they were missing their top three cornerbacks (Sam Shields, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins); their best pass rusher (Clay Matthews); their top two running backs (Eddie Lacy and James Starks); their best tight end (Jared Cook); and their two hybrid receiver-running backs (Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery) who were supposed to help them cope with their issues in the backfield.
The missing cornerbacks meant that much of the responsibility for slowing down the NFL’s top-rated offense and best receiver (Julio Jones) would fall on their pass rush. Yes, Matthews’ absence because of a hamstring injury hurt, but the Packers still had Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Mike Daniels and Datone Jones to get after the quarterback.
When Rodgers hit Jeff Janis with the touchdown that put the Packers ahead 32-26 with 3:58 left in the game, you had to figure it was asking too much of cornerbacks LaDarius Gunter, Demetri Goodson and Micah Hyde to shut down a passing game that features Jones, offseason free-agent signee Mohamed Sanu and a very capable and clutch quarterback in Matt Ryan.
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Somebody up front for the Packers was either going to have to sack Ryan to put him in a hole, or else pressure him into an interception or key incompletion. Daniels and Peppers each had sacked Ryan earlier in the game, but no one got to him in the final four minutes, when the quarterback took his team 75 yards in about 3½ minutes for the go-ahead touchdown.
It didn’t matter on the game-winning touchdown whether safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was supposed to double cover Jones, as he did, or help linebacker Jake Ryan on Sanu. Ryan had all the time he needed to stand in the pocket and throw a perfect strike over Ryan and to the leaping Sanu with 31 seconds to play
“We just didn’t get it done,” Daniels said of the pass rush on the final drive, “and we’re better than that, and we’ve got to get to work to prove that we’re better than that…. All I know is I didn’t get to the quarterback (on the final touchdown), and that’s what I was out there to do. I’ve got to do better. I get to the quarterback, we’re not even talking about that (touchdown pass).”
With all the injuries on offense, including the surprising game-day scratch of Montgomery (a reported kidney infection), the Packers needed a big game from Rodgers to have a chance, and they got it (125.5 rating plus 60 rushing yards on six scrambles). He was sublime in the red zone and kept drives alive with both his arm and feet.
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Because of all the injuries, McCarthy also had no choice in this game but to play his youngest receivers down after down, and they came through as well. Trevor Davis, Jeff Janis and Geronimo Allison each caught a touchdown pass and combined for nine catches for 77 yards. Their performances warrant more playing time down the road.
And Rodgers faced a major challenge taking over with only 31 seconds left and needing 38 yards to give Mason Crosby a shot at a 55-yard field, which is about the range at which the Packers kicker has a fighting chance. Rodgers, though, just missed on his three throws that ended the game: High and behind Jordy Nelson just enough that the receiver couldn’t hold onto a lkely 20-yard gain; while on the run, just behind Allison enough for cornerback C.J. Goodwin to break up; and then on a another scramble he misread Adams and threw to the sideline before the receiver broke off his route.
With that, the chance for a huge and unexpected win ended.
“In retrospect, a ball that was a little closer to (Adams) maybe allows him to cut off his route,” Rodgers said. “Yeah, that’s frustrating. Would have liked to hit the one to Jordy and then that one as well.”
It also bears pointing out that for all that McCarthy did right for this game, he hurt his own cause at the start of the second half, when the Packers had a chance to build on a five-point lead.
What got McCarthy’s team there in the first place was going predominantly with four and five receivers, and leving his tight ends on the bench. But on the Packers’ two possessions in the third quarter, McCarthy appeared bent on playing more conventional football, using conventional personnel and running the ball. Both drives ended with punts.
When McCarthy went back to almost strictly four and five receivers in the fourth quarter, he got a long, time-eating drive that put the Packers back in the lead. I’m sure the coach has strategic short- and long-term reasons for wanting to play a tight end regularly, but with Cook out and the shortage at running back, it’s hard to justify. The Packers simply are better both running and passing with a fourth receiver than with Richard Rodgers on the field. That much we saw.
Overall, with all that was against them, give the Packers credit for a battle well fought. But this also was a game they could have won.
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