Behind a jaw-dropping performance from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a pair of momentous interceptions by Tramon Williams, the Packers chalked up another road playoff victory on Saturday night. This one was less dramatic than last week but undoubtedly more impressive, a 48-21 NFC Divisional-round beating of the No. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons in front of 69,210 fans in what became an awfully quiet Georgia Dome by evening’s end.
With the win, the No. 6-seeded Packers advance to next Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against either Chicago or Seattle, one win away from a trip to the Super Bowl and two wins away from the league title. To these Packers, the playoff journey is only half over.
“We’ve had 16 quarters on our mind, we’ve completed eight of them, and we have an opportunity to play in four more next week,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “We feel very good about who we are, the way we’ve played, our brand of football in all three areas. And that’s what we’re sticking to.”
That brand of football was downright dominant against the Falcons, who under quarterback Matt Ryan had been 20-2 on their home turf over the past three years. But the Packers became just the second No. 6 seed to knock off the No. 1 in the NFC since the league went to this playoff format in 1990 (Philadelphia beating the New York Giants in the 2008 playoffs was the other).
The Packers overcame a couple of early blunders but did so swiftly and efficiently. A fumble by receiver Greg Jennings at the end of a 30-yard gain set up Atlanta’s first score, a 12-yard run by Michael Turner. Then after the Packers answered with Jordy Nelson’s 7-yard touchdown to cap an 81-yard drive, Atlanta’s Eric Weems returned the ensuing kickoff 102 yards for another score and it was 14-7 Falcons early in the second quarter.
But the Packers took over from there, stunning and quieting the Georgia Dome crowd with an almost unfathomable 35 unanswered points over the next two quarters. As the offense put together four consecutive touchdown drives of 92, 80, 80 and 50 yards, Williams made his two big plays right in the middle of the barrage, both in the final three minutes of the first half.
First, with the score tied at 14, he picked off a deep ball from Ryan to Michael Jenkins in the end zone, thwarting what turned out to be Atlanta’s last chance to take the lead. Then, with the Packers leading 21-14 in the final moments of the first half and the Falcons trying to run one more play to get in field-goal range, he stepped in front of Roddy White along the sideline and returned his second interception 70 yards for a momentum-changing score to make it 28-14 as the clock hit zero for halftime.
“That’s hard to come back from,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “It was probably pretty demoralizing, but we couldn’t have asked for it at a better time.”
The entire sequence showed just how complete this Packers team has become. The response to the long kickoff return – a 92-yard march capped by John Kuhn’s 1-yard plunge behind “new” fullback B.J. Raji – sent a message the Packers weren’t going to be rattled on this night, and they went on to thoroughly shake their opponent instead.
“We had to get back in control of the game, so that was a big one,” guard Daryn Colledge said of the tying TD drive. “But Tramon’s touchdown before halftime, that’s the swing there. That’s the one that puts you over the top.”
In the meantime, Rodgers was nothing short of superb. He preceded Williams’ pick-six with an 80-yard TD drive in the 2-minute drill, hitting James Jones for a 20-yard score with 42 seconds left in the half to give the Packers their first lead at 21-14. Jones, making up for a much-discussed drop of a deep ball in Philadelphia last week, made a tremendous catch, outjumping cornerback Brent Grimes in the end zone and hauling the ball in as he fell to the ground.
Given the double-dose of momentum going into halftime, Rodgers came out and didn’t let up, scrambling for a 7-yard touchdown and then hitting Kuhn for a 7-yard TD pass on the first two drives to make it 42-14 with less than 3 minutes to go in the third quarter.
“He was on fire,” McCarthy said. “He likes playing in domes, and you could see why.”
It wasn’t just the impeccable stats Rodgers compiled – 31-of-36 for 366 yards with three TDs and no interceptions for a 136.8 rating – but the way he did it. He repeatedly shook free from pressure or spun away from blitzers, buying time and then firing a strike.
His execution led to the Packers converting 7-of-8 third downs through the first three quarters as the offense, aside from the early Jennings fumble, could do no wrong.
“Mike just got us in a rhythm early,” Rodgers said. “I felt good about the calls, guys made some big plays, and I got into rhythm not only throwing the football but moving around the pocket. Special night.”
Special doesn’t quite do it justice.
“That was unbelievable,” Matthews said. “I have not seen a performance like that in a very long time, if at all. He was just throwing the ball at will on them, just dicing them up. It was pretty amazing to know if we gave him the ball, 80 yards and he was driving down and scoring.”
The Packers’ top four receivers all posted at least 75 yards, led by Jennings with eight catches for 101 yards. Nelson added eight for 79, Donald Driver had six for 76 and Jones finished with four for 75.
“We’re dangerous, and we knew that,” Driver said. “It’s a scary thing. When we’re clicking, we’re unstoppable.”
The Falcons tried to rally but made a few crucial mistakes in the process. Following a touchdown pass to White early in the fourth quarter that made it 42-21, receiver Brian Finneran touched the ensuing onside kick before it had gone 10 yards, negating his recovery.
Then on Atlanta’s next two possessions, Ryan fumbled on a third-and-1 sneak and Jenkins fumbled after a fourth-down reception, running Atlanta’s total to four turnovers on the night – this from the team that led the NFC with just 17 giveaways all season coming in.
In the Packers’ first trip to Atlanta back in Week 12, the Green Bay defense didn’t generate a single turnover. The Packers also had sacked Ryan only twice but got to him five times in this one, with Matthews getting two sacks.
The key to such an active, productive defense was two-fold. The Packers got such a stronghold on the game that they took the Falcons out of their ball-control game plan, which McCarthy referred to as the defense playing “downhill.”
In addition, even when the Falcons were running the ball with Turner, who had 110 yards against the Packers back in November, they weren’t getting much. Turner had just 10 carries for 39 yards, getting loose only on his early TD run and averaging 3 yards per carry on his other nine attempts.
“We were able to stop the run, and anytime you get an offense in a situation that’s more predictable, Dom (Capers) was able to dial up some of his great blitzes,” said nose tackle B.J. Raji, who had one of the sacks of his former Boston College teammate. “Matt is a great quarterback. I’ve known him for quite some time, but when you can put any quarterback in that situation, it’s going to be tough for him.”
Right now the Packers appear tough for anyone to handle, but there’s no satisfaction in getting this far. The postgame locker room was more businesslike than celebratory, a reflection not only of how convincing this win was, but of how much work still lies ahead.
“Championship-caliber to us is not getting to the NFC Championship game,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “We have a lot higher goals than that. We’ve been saying all year, ‘Just give us a chance.’”
That chance is now, and the Packers know it.
“We don’t play this game to get to the NFC Championship,” Matthews said. “We play to get to the Super Bowl and win it. We just feel like this is another step of getting to that game, getting to that point in the season, so we feel good about where we’re at.”