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Falcons Fly Too High For Wounded Packers In NFC Title Game

Packers vs Falcons - NFL Magic Mike via flickr.com

NFL

Packers’ Magical Run Ends In Blowout Fashion At The Georgia Dome

For almost five months now, and in years prior, the Green Bay Packers have employed a “bend-don’t-break” philosophy on the defensive side of the ball. And on Sunday in the Georgia Dome, Matt Ryan completely fractured any stability they had left.

Green Bay’s Dom Capers led defense came into the playoffs ranking 31st of 32 teams in the league in yards allowed, incredibly bad considering they play the Vikings and Bears twice a year, but unlike the first half of the season they’ve been forcing turnovers at a high clip during the Packers eight game winning streak dating back to November (18 in total).

Next to Aaron Rodgers‘ impressive stretch of 21 touchdowns to only 1 interception during the period, the defenses ability to not surrender points despite giving up large chunks of yardage was a key in “running the table”.

Against the league’s number one offense led by the probable MVP in Ryan, the group of misplaced and unprepared young players fell short, extremely short.

Ryan shredded the Packers for nearly 400 yards through the air, adding five scores (4 passing, 1 rushing), while easily manipulating the secondary on almost every pre and post-snap read on his way to a 44-21 win. It was a clinic not seen since, well, since the last time he beat Green Bay in week 8.

However, uncharacteristic miscues from the most reliable of weapons kept the game from being as competitive as their meeting in October (which Atlanta won 33-32).

After Ryan led a 13-play, 80 yard opening drive that spanned six minutes and ended with a Favre-esque flip to Mohamed Sanu at the goal-line, it was obvious Rodgers and the dangerous Packers offense would need to be perfect.

Rodgers wasted no time, lofting up a beautiful 27-yard pass to Jordy Nelson on the second play of the possession, and following it up with a 15-yard dime across the middle of the field back to Nelson on the next play.

The hot start would be wasted, as an unblocked man come right through the middle of the line and forced an incomplete pass on 3rd and 4 later in the drive.

At least the Packers were confident knowing the most accurate kicker in the history of playoff football, Mason Crosby, would get them on the board with a 40-yard field goal.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, especially streaks held by field goal kickers in the NFL. He hooked it wide right.

The Falcons countered the Packers mistake and cashed in on a field goal of their own from Matt Bryant after the Green Bay defense forced a rare stop. In fact it was one of only three times out of nine possessions that they kept Ryan out of the endzone.

Again, Rodgers would come out firing on the next drive, completing two consecutive first down passes to Randall Cobb for 39 yards.

This time their momentum would falter due to an untimely fumble by rookie fullback Aaron Ripkowski at the 10-yard line. He fought through multiple defenders to gain nearly 15 yards off a draw play that looked to be dead five yards earlier, but didn’t protect the ball well enough against the ball-seeking defense of Atlanta.

Notable is the fact that when Jalen Collins recovered the fumble for the Falcons, he gained possession at the one and rolled into the endzone, presumably it would’ve normally been ruled a safety, but was never looked at. Yet another example of what happens when things just aren’t going your way.

With the score still reasonably close at only 10-0 after the fumble, the game was far from over. Although Matt Ryan, amply nicknamed “Matty Ice”, was about to make it clear that they weren’t letting up.

He led another impressive nine-play, 80-yard drive to the Packers 14-yard line before facing a 2nd and 10. Ryan finished the drive not with his arm, but with his legs on a touchdown scamper in which he used the most subtle of head/arm fakes to get linebacker Joe Thomas off balance. It was his first TD on the ground since 2012, and was a big shot to the heart of Packer Nation.

Green Bay was in a terrible position down 17 to an offense that looked invincible, but a touchdown drive before the half reminiscent of the Wild Card round versus the Giants could get them back in it. As he often does, Mike McCarthy deferred to the second half on the coin toss, meaning if they went two-for-one and scored at the end of the first and beginning of the second half, they’d suddenly be down just three.

Instead, an 11-yard sack by Ra’Shede Hageman forced the Packers into a 3rd and 20 at their own 13. Unlike when they faced the Cowboys with the same down and distance, Rodgers was unable to make a play. Seeing no option, he let go a 65-yard bomb down the left hash to Nelson. It was essentially a punt, as Falcons safety Ricardo Allen ran underneath it at his own 32.

As they did after Ripkowski’s fumble, Atlanta quickly exchanged Rodgers’ turnover for another Ryan touchdown, this time to Julio Jones with only three seconds left in the first half. The Falcons successfully took a 24-0 lead into halftime against the “hottest team in football”.

The All-Pro Jones, who caught six of his nine passes for 71 of 180 yards in the first 30 minutes of Sunday’s game, was far from done. And his first catch of the second half would provide the game’s most devastating dagger.

Jones, who lined up in the slot against corner LaDarius Gunter on the play, ran a simple deep slant route (in which he drew a holding penalty on Gunter) and gained separation in the middle of the field. Ryan hit him in stride around the Atlanta 40-yard line, and Jones easily accelerated past the outmatched Gunter before dishing out a brutal stiff-arm on Damarious Randall on his way to a 73-yard touchdown pitch-and-catch.

Only about a minute into the third quarter, having possessed the ball for almost 21 minutes, Matt Ryan had successfully passed for over 340 yards. He would add another touchdown pass to running back Devonta Freeman in the third quarter, but the game was long over.

To the credit of the Packers offense, they never relented. Even down 31-0, Rodgers and his guys didn’t pack it in. Despite Jordy Nelson playing with broken ribs, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery noticeably limping after most downs, and TJ Lang braving his way through a broken foot and injured hip, Green Bay put up 21 second half points.

Rodgers ended his once in a lifetime run with 287 yards and three touchdowns, rewarding Nelson and Adams with scores of their own for fighting their way back into the lineup (Jared Cook being the third score).

Yes, those scores are relatively meaningless on the surface, but they say something about this group of players that breeds hope for the future. They didn’t want that game, or this season to end, and forging a team that runs on passion is the best way to insure a healthy future.

It’s sad such a memorable run, which started with such a memorable sound bite, had to end in such a lopsided and ugly finale.

Although like most things, if you temp fate and keep applying mounds of pressure onto something (like a defense with no depth in the secondary) unequipped to handle it, it’s bound to crumble eventually.

The Falcons will move on to Super Bowl 51 to face the New England Patriots in another match-up of MVP candidate quarterbacks two weeks from now in Houston. Packers fans, like two years ago, may opt out of that one.

And like Bears fans always say, “there’s always next year”.