ATLANTA - For as outstanding a career as Aaron Rodgers has enjoyed, the preponderance of statistical weight shows he hasn’t been successful in the clutch when compared to his peers.
The thriller Sunday at the Georgia Dome basically came down to how Rodgers would fare in the final minute. It’s a quarterback’s game, specifically a great quarterback’s game. That goes with the territory. They decide close games.
When Rodgers failed, completing one of four passes for merely 7 yards, the Packers departed with a depressing 33-32 defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons.
“We were still one play away type of thing,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s all about creating opportunities and taking advantage of those opportunities. We didn’t do enough to win the game.”
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Because of injury, the Packers played without six starters: Randall Cobb, Jared Cook and Eddie Lacy on offense, and Clay Matthews, Sam Shields and Damarious Randall on defense. Their top three running backs and top three cornerbacks all sat out.
McCarthy is loath to use injuries as a crutch. His team was prepared, which was evident by a brilliant start on offense and a defense that at least hung tough in the red zone for most of the first half against the NFL’s No. 1-ranked offense.
“We expect to win every time we line up,” said McCarthy. “We understand we have outstanding football players who didn’t play today, but this is the NFL and that’s the way it is.”
It’s the same way with franchise quarterbacks. With games on the line, they’re expected to win. There aren’t many, if any excuses.
Matt Ryan threw down the gauntlet for Rodgers, marching the Falcons 75 yards in 11 plays for the tying touchdown to Mohamed Sanu. Matt Bryant’s extra point gave Atlanta the lead, its first since late in the third quarter.
The Packers took over at the 25 with two timeouts and 31 seconds. In a dome, Mason Crosby’s range was at least 60 yards, maybe 63.
For a 60-yard attempt, Rodgers needed to gain 33 yards.
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At the end of the first half, he did terrific work setting up Crosby’s 29-yard field goal as time expired. In 27 seconds, the Packers gobbled up 64 yards in four plays.
“Yes, I did,” guard Lane Taylor replied when asked if he expected to win in those final 31 seconds. “We scored with 29 seconds (actually 27) before the half so we knew we had a chance.”
Tackle David Bakhtiari agreed, saying, “Any time you got 12 (Rodgers) with the ball I think we’re in good position to win.”
Six weeks ago in Minnesota was Rodgers’ other chance this season to pull out a game late. He underthrew a sideline pass that Trae Waynes intercepted and the Packers fell, 17-14.
According to Pro Football Reference, Rodgers entered the week tied for 94th place on the all-time list of quarterbacks in a category described as game-winning drives. He has 14 in a 12-year career, including nine as a starter.
Tom Brady is third on that list with 48, and Brett Favre is fifth with 45. Two of Rodgers’ contemporaries, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, each have 37.
Ryan improved to a tie for 11th on the list with his 33rd. Jay Cutler has 24 and Russell Wilson already has 20.
“I don’t really care. OK?” said Bakhtiari. “He’s the best player in the NFL. Period.”
Pro Football Reference also tracks what it labels fourth-quarter comebacks by quarterbacks since 1960. Depending on its criteria, Rodgers might have earned one with the 13-play, 86-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that gave Green Bay the lead, 32-26.
Entering the week, however, Rodgers’ total of 10 was tied for 103rd place with Mark Sanchez, Ryan Tannehill, Don Majkowski and Tim Couch, among others.
“Aaron Rodgers is a Hall of Famer,” Falcons cornerback Robert Alford said. “He’s one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. To say he’s not good in coming back … I feel he’s a great quarterback.”
On each of the last four plays, the Falcons rushed four and stunted linemen. They aimed to hem Rodgers in while trying to mount a modicum of pressure against their elusive target.
“It can go either way,” defensive end Brooks Reed said of which team the odds favored at the end. “We just had the right defense dialed up at the right time. We got pressure at the right times and forced some hard throws.”
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Traditionally, Rodgers likes an easy completion starting a do-or-die situation. He got that with a 7-yard out to Jeff Janis, who was tackled out of bounds at the :26 mark.
On second down, Rodgers fired a shot to Jordy Nelson in the middle of the field at the Atlanta 48. Strong safety Keanu Neal said he broke up the pass.
“It was like spot-on,” Neal said. “I was kind of like a run-through player on it. Like a weak hook player.”
After McCarthy used a timeout to discuss the call, Rodgers extended the play before firing a sideline pass to rookie Geronimo Allison. In man coverage, free agent C.J. Goodwin had time to cut in front of Allison and was in position for the pick but dropped the ball.
“We started off with a little bit of Cover 3 (zone), then switched to man,” said Neal. “We had to play them aggressive. We played normal ball with them because we knew they had to get to the 38, 39.”
On fourth down, Nelson aligned slot right with Davante Adams outside of him. Rodgers looked for a vertical shot to either player, but when Nelson ended up off his feet and with the rush arriving he slipped out to the right and threw for Adams on the sideline.
“He was thinking he had a step on his defender (Goodwin) and the ball was coming over the top,” said Rodgers. “I was thinking that he might break it off to the sideline. As I was on the roll I couldn’t tell whether or not he was over the top, so in retrospect maybe a ball that’s closer to him allows him to cut off his route.”
So the Packers, making their first road trip in six weeks, slipped to 4-3 and 1 ½ games behind Minnesota in the NFC North. The Falcons improved to 5-3 with a playoff tie-breaker over Green Bay.
“Both quarterbacks were on fire the entire game,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. “I was extremely proud of our effort and fight tonight. No doubt this game was going to go all the way.”
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Until it came time to settle accounts this was Rodgers’ best game in a long time. One could come up with 11 exceptional passes, and precious few of his 10 incompletions were poor throws.
His 125.5 passer rating, second highest in the last 22 games, didn’t include the six scrambles for 60 yards and three first downs.
Rodgers threw an exquisite 58-yard over route to Nelson while being smashed onto his back by nose tackle Grady Jarrett on the Packers’ fourth snap.
He extended plays with his feet three times in the first half resulting in short touchdown passes to Nelson of 5 yards, to Allison of 4 yards and to Trevor Davis of 9 yards.
“He was balling,” said Taylor. “He was making plays left and right. It was ridiculous.”
Protection issues, almost inevitable when there’s not even a semblance of a conventional running game, began popping up late in the second quarter. The Falcons’ three sacks, all on third down, were charged to T.J. Lang, JC Tretter and Taylor. They helped send momentum to Atlanta.
“It’s a lot of stress,” said Bakhtiari. “We believe we’re the best pass blockers in the league. The common fan wouldn’t notice but the players and coaches and guys going against us know these guys can frickin’ pass block.”
On defense, the Packers surrounded Ryan (129.5 rating) but sacked him just twice and failed to unnerve him.
“He’s a really good player,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “He didn’t mess up too much today.”
With LaDarius Gunter matching on Julio Jones in many coverages, the elite wide receiver was limited to three catches for 29 yards. Jones limped off with a knee injury with 6 minutes left in the second quarter after getting mixed up with the tenacious Gunter.
Jones stayed in the lineup but, in the last 35 minutes, was targeted just once.
“I don’t know what happened on that play,” said Gunter. “I was just out there playing. He still looked explosive. He looked like himself.”
Ryan also lost the security blanket of tight end Jacob Tamme, who left with a shoulder injury on the first series. It didn’t much matter, with Ryan getting the most from Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and tight end Austin Hooper.
It was Sanu who speared the winning touchdown pass of 11 yards against a blown coverage. Eight plays before that, Gunter said he would give himself a dropped interception on a sideline pass to Sanu.
“That whole offense, they came to play,” Daniels said, referring to his teammates. “They put up 32 points, you’re supposed to win.
“These guys have performed miracles before. Unfortunately, we put them in a position where they had to perform a miracle.”
That was no miracle Aaron Rodgers was asked to perform in the last minute Sunday. It’s just part of the job description for any quarterback that’s the face of an NFL franchise.