ATLANTA - When the magic ran out, it ran all the way out.
This time there was no last-second heartbreak to end the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl hopes. No late-game play or decision to dissect and overanalyze.
Instead, Aaron Rodgers’ and the Packers’ epic run of the past two months ended with a dud. No shootout, no last stand. It just vanished one step shy of the Super Bowl in a blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
“Frankly, we ran out of gas,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
The Packers’ 2016 season will be remembered most for its extraordinary turnaround — the team was on life support after a brutal four-game losing streak left it at 4-6, but then went on a memorable eight-game run that took McCarthy to his fourth conference title game.
But it also will be remembered for the way it finished. Because all the weaknesses and shortcomings that had plagued the Packers during bad times were laid bare on Sunday as the season’s final impression.
All during the winning that took the Packers to Sunday’s NFC title game, Rodgers had overwhelmed opponent after opponent. He led long drives that ate clock and kept his opposite number off the field. If he wasn’t in the lead, he wasn’t far from it, and that was enough to protect a fragile defense that glaringly lacked playmaking.
But at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, the Packers found out what it’s like to be on the other side.
This time, Matt Ryan, the NFL’s MVP in waiting, kept Rodgers off the field with long drives, and ratcheted up the pressure with points on possession after possession.
Then when the Packers cracked early — a missed field goal by Mason Crosby and Aaron Ripkowski’s lost fumble in the red zone — the camouflage came off. The Packers’ pass rush was non-existent. Their cover men rarely were in position to make a quick tackle after a catch, let alone make a play on the ball. And Atlanta put up touchdowns on six of nine possessions.
One of the big differences was Julio Jones. The Atlanta receiver is the best player in the game at his position, and the Packers had no one like him on either side of the ball. His nine catches for 180 yards included a demoralizing, rub-your-nose-in-it 73-yard touchdown on which he shrugged off tackle attempts by LaDarius Gunter and Damarious Randall like they were gnats trying to bring down a gazelle.
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But more to the point, Jones put up those big numbers while also occupying coordinator Dom Capers’ defense. Gunter covered him wherever he lined up, and the Packers always played a safety almost directly over the top of him. That left all sorts of holes in the secondary and made it harder for Capers to blitz without leaving everyone else covered one-on-one.
And unlike last week against rookie Dak Prescott, the Packers were facing a peaking veteran quarterback who was fully equipped to exploit every mismatch he saw. Ryan stood tall in the pocket and threw strike after strike to the tune of a 139.4 rating and 392 yards passing.
So now Ryan, not Rodgers, will go on to face Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. The Packers, in the meantime, go home to think about how this season ended so disastrously and where to go from here.
I can only imagine the reaction out there to the Packers’ humiliating loss. I’m sure there will be calls for Ted Thompson’s head for any and all roster shortcomings. And the fire Dom Capers crowd will be at full throat after watching Ryan move the ball with ease all day while putting up 44 points and 493 yards in total offense.
And the truth is, Capers’ defense was hopelessly overmatched Sunday.
But don’t expect much change at 1265 Lombardi Ave., if any. Thompson isn’t going anywhere, and of course, neither is McCarthy. You never know what assistant coach McCarthy might let go, but I’d put a heavy wager that Capers will be back in 2017.
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And really, how can you pin all this on Capers? He just didn’t have anything to work with. His best pass rushers, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, were no-shows Sunday because of age, injury or both. And his cornerback play has been hopelessly uneven ever since Sam Shields' season — and you have to think, his career — ended in Week 1 because of a concussion.
How many coordinators could have done better?
This defense obviously needs help, and it needs it now. It hardly takes a genius to see that cornerback and outside linebacker are at the top of that list. But more than anything, it needs a difference maker at any position. Easier to say than find.
“I don’t think we need to rebuild, we need to reload,” Rodgers said.
The Packers’ quarterback went on to do some player-personnel lobbying of his own at his final press conference of the season. He called explicitly for Thompson to re-sign tight end Jared Cook and implicitly to re-sign right guard T.J. Lang.
“Jared Cook I think needs to be near the top of the priority list, the way he played this year,” Rodgers said. “And the offensive line, keeping those guys together was a big part of our success.”
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Rodgers also seemed to urge Thompson to be more aggressive in acquiring players than he’s been for most of his 12 years as general manager. Rodgers turned 33 in December, and the clock is ticking even if he played possibly the best football of his career over the past two months.
“I still feel pretty young,” Rodgers said. “I think I have a number of years left in me (where) I can play at a high level. We’ve just got to make sure we’re going all-in every year to win.”