McGinn: Packers season ends with a dud

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Packers cornerback LaDarius Gunter can't stop Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones from scoring a touchdown in the second half Sunday in the  NFC Championship Game.

ATLANTA – At least the Green Bay Packers will never have to set foot in the Georgia Dome again.

The 25-year-old venue, the site Sunday of the Packers’ third-worst defeat in their 81-year playoff history, will be demolished in the next few months to make way for the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium next door that is nearing completion.

“It’ll be nice to see this thing blown up,” guard Lane Taylor said after the fourth-seeded Packers were obliterated, 44-21, by the second-seeded Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. “We’ll start a new future next time we play them.”

With Mike McCarthy as coach, Aaron Rodgers as quarterback and Ted Thompson as general manager, the Packers probably will have many more playoff seasons and other Super Bowl opportunities.

But this season, once again, they’ve failed not only to win another Super Bowl but even to play in another Super Bowl. Thompson has one in his 12 seasons, McCarthy has one in his 11 and Rodgers has one in his nine as a starter.

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McCarthy went on and on afterward, praising his team’s “energy” and “fight.”

“What a great season,” he gushed. “I don’t know if I have ever been more proud of a football team. You hate to see it end. It will always be a special football team.”

The epitaph for the 2016 Packers will cite them for being arguably the NFL’s most disappointing team through 10 games (4-6).

It will cite them for winning their last six games in the regular season, and then two games in the postseason.

Finally, their tombstone will close with “Did Not Compete” with a precious berth in the 51st Super Bowl at stake.

This was a travesty from start to finish for the Packers (12-7). The defense was slaughtered, the offense was neutered and the special teams, well, the missed 41-yard field goal attempt by Mason Crosby in the first quarter said all that needed to be said.

Late in the weekend, the smart guys bet the Falcons (13-5) so hard that the line moved from its start of Atlanta -4 to Atlanta -6 at kickoff. They saw the rout coming, unlike many in the state of Wisconsin and the Green Bay locker room.

McCarthy described his team’s confidence as “overwhelming” during the week. That confidence went away fast as the Falcons gained a Super Bowl berth against the New England Patriots (16-2) on Feb. 5 in Houston.

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What got the Packers to this spot either deserted them or was taken away by the Falcons, who will be making their second appearance in the Super Bowl (and first since the 1998 season).

Their 22nd-ranked defense, which had at least shown some semblance of respectability to go with 18 takeaways during the winning streak, was pathetic. Atlanta piled up 493 yards, 30 first downs and a 77% third-down conversion rate before calling off the dogs after three quarters.

“We knew … he’s that good,” said linebacker Datone Jones, referring to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. “They destroyed us. It was a pretty amazing operation.

“Their O-line didn’t have to do anything. The ball was out too fast. They took the rush completely out of the game. Ball was thrown over our heads in 1.5, 2 seconds. Their game plan was great.

“We’ve got to do a better job in the back end. I’m not down on anybody. I’m not knocking anybody. We’ve just got to come in with a better plan.”

There has been some speculation that this could be it for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who is 66. If he elects to keep coaching, and if it isn’t in Green Bay, he has such widespread respect among his peers that another coordinator’s job could await elsewhere.

But there was no excuse for this. Every defensive starter other than cornerback Sam Shields was in uniform, and the game-ending losses of nickel back Micah Hyde (shoulder, late second quarter) and linebacker Jake Ryan (shoulder, mid third quarter) didn’t matter that much.

On offense, every starter played except running back Eddie Lacy. Game-ending injuries were suffered by guard Lane Taylor (knee, late second quarter), guard T.J. Lang (foot, late third quarter) and tackle Bryan Bulaga (possible concussion, late fourth quarter).

“I felt the Falcons played a tremendous game all the way around,” said McCarthy. “I think we just ran out of gas in a few spots.”

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The Packers won the toss and deferred, their automatic move almost all year. Atlanta then marched 80 yards in 10 plays for an opening touchdown.

After Crosby blew the kick, the Falcons went 59 in 12 for a field goal. It was 17-0 midway through the second quarter after their third possession, a nine-play, 80-yard TD sortie.

“They played a lot of 2-man (coverage),” wide receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “We expected that. We knew they didn’t want to give up any big plays. They played real conservative so we had to have long drives.”

What was remarkable about the Falcons in the first half was their ability to overcome awful plays. They dropped five passes (two by Julio Jones) in those first three series, but it didn’t deter them in the least.

Following four of the drops they just converted the first down anyway, and settled for a field goal after Mohamed Sanu butchered a 5-yard fade in the end-zone corner.

“Who knows why we were a step slow and a dollar late?” said cornerback Damarious Randall. “We missed some opportunities at interceptions. You’ve got to capitalize on chances.”

Ryan had first crack at a bungled jet sweep that caromed off the motioning Gabriel in the second quarter. A recovery there would have given Green Bay possession at the Atlanta 40. Instead, Tevin Coleman flicked it away from Ryan’s grasp and Gabriel recovered.

Before the Falcons closed the half with another TD for a 24-0 bulge, dime safety Marwin Evans couldn’t make a difficult pick in the end zone and LaDarius Gunter blew a chance in the end zone for another.

The Packers were minus-2 in turnover differential, the first time they had a deficit since the Game 10 defeat in Washington.

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Ryan didn’t kill the Packers down the field. Just four of his 27 completions (for 392 yards, passer rating of 139.4) were for more than 20 yards.

However, Ryan’s receivers made an astonishing 19 receptions for gains of 10-to-19 yards, including 15 in the first half alone.

Sanu always was open in the middle. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Coleman combined for 148 yards from scrimmage, including seven catches in which they beat just about every linebacker.

As for Jones, well, he was superlative. Really, what did the Packers expect with Gunter trying to shadow him?

“Julio Jones makes it a mismatch for any cornerback,” Gabriel said. “It’s not just him (Gunter).”

On offense, whatever McCarthy and his staff came up with for a plan looked pedestrian compared to the designs and tempo of Shanahan. Rodgers ended up with 287 yards and a rating of 91.6, but his only big play was a 34-yard toss to Randall Cobb on an extension in garbage time on fourth and 18.

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Green Bay exuded confidence in its pass protection. But the flaws cropped up early on middle and slot blitzes by coordinator Richard Smith, who held the upper hand over McCarthy/Rodgers all afternoon.

Rodgers was sacked twice and knocked down another eight times. Half of the knockdowns were punishing smashes, including two by nickel back Brian Poole.

“We had a really good game plan,” rookie linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “We always had somebody spying him making sure he wasn’t able to escape the pocket and make plays. Having a guy who was able to chase him down so he wasn’t able to just cleanly run around and make throws.”

Wide receivers Jordy Nelson (broken ribs), Davante Adams (ankle) and Geronimo Alllison (hamstring) all played extensively. The Packers dropped five passes, their highest total since the Redskins game.

“We hit ‘em a lot,” strong safety Keanu Neal said. “We got a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We got hits in the kill zone. I think it caused a few drops.”

It could be argued that the Falcons, ranked merely 25th in yards allowed and 27th in points, outhustled and outhit the Packers.

“They’re more of a finesse team,” said Campbell. “They’ve got a great quarterback who wants to throw the ball around a lot. I think our physical style of play kind of was the determining factor in this game.

“Fast and physical is kind of our motto. We want to play physical against everybody. We wanted to get some hits on them (wide receivers) to see how healthy they were.”

Due to pass blocking, game-planning, quarterbacking and receiving, Green Bay was unable to exploit the Falcons’ vulnerable secondary.

The game inexorably tilted Atlanta’s way early in the second quarter when fullback Aaron Ripkowski rushed up the gut for 12 yards to the 11. Neal stripped him from the side and cornerback Jalen Collins recovered. It was ruled a touchback.

“You’re right about that,” said Ripkowski. “I will be thinking about it for a while. I don’t know exactly what happened.”

It was the first lost fumble by a Green Bay running back since Oct. 16.

“We knew he was a hard runner but he had ball-security issues,” Campbell said. “With a guy like that, typically they don’t have good ball security. So we knew we could get one off him. The second guy in would be the guy.”

Thus, the Packers slipped to 1-3 in title games under McCarthy. It was mindful of the 45-17 pratfall against the Rams in another dome 16 years ago.

Player after player joined their coach in speaking with pride for having salvaged a season that looked kaput to some fans and outsiders in mid-November.

“We fought hard this season,” said Datone Jones. “We’ve got a lot of winners in this locker room.”

With a sixth berth in the Super Bowl at hand against a franchise with almost no tradition, all the winners Sunday were wearing the red and black.

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