GREEN BAY — Playing inside the Georgia Dome for the final time, Matt Ryan and Atlanta’s fast-paced offense lived up to their billing during Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
The Packers’ defense, so proficient at generating turnovers during the team’s eight game-winning streak, just wasn’t able to find the right formula to break momentum building in the sails of the NFL’s highest-scoring offense Sunday.
Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 392 yards and four touchdowns in the Falcons’ 44-21 win over Green Bay, connecting with long-time target Julio Jones nine times for 180 yards and two touchdowns to power Atlanta’s offense.
It sends the Falcons to their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly two decades, while ending Green Bay’s miraculous run from 4-6 to two wins away from the Lombardi Trophy.
“Anytime you lose in the playoffs, it’s difficult to swallow, especially with the turnaround we had in the season,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You start to think this is the team of destiny especially with how we’ve been able to run through some good teams. Ran out of gas and unfortunately couldn’t find an answer to get their offense out of rhythm.
“Ultimately, they made the plays and we didn’t make very many. It’s a terrific offense and we didn’t do a whole lot to slow them down.”
Ryan’s quick release made it difficult for the Packers’ pass-rush to get home. The quarterback’s awareness went a long way towards the Falcons converting 10-of-13 in third-down situations.
Atlanta fumbled in the game, but managed to pounce on both to complete a turnover-free day. That execution – and a 24-0 halftime lead – created a snowball effect that Green Bay’s defense wasn’t able to overcome.
“We got off to a bad start,” linebacker Julius Peppers said. “They converted a lot of third downs early and scored a couple touchdowns. I felt like we could have held them to three on some of those drives and they ended up scoring seven. That’s a huge difference in the game right there.”
The Packers’ defense dealt with adversity from the start of the year with Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Shields sustaining a season-ending concussion in the opener against Jacksonville.
A litany of injuries forced younger players on the roster to take on greater roles on defense, testing the team’s depth during a four-game losing streak midway through the season.
However, it was how the defense responded that veterans like Mike Daniels will remember most when reflecting back on the 2016 season.
“I thought we did an excellent job coming back from where we came from,” Daniels said. “Nobody gave us a chance … and then we get in the NFC Championship Game. There are definitely some positives there, but the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl and that’s not feasible this year.”
What a run: While Sunday’s loss to the Falcons will undoubtedly last for a long time, it also wasn’t lost on many inside the Packers’ locker room what the 2016 team accomplished.
Green Bay claimed its eighth consecutive playoff appearance and fifth NFC North title in six years after a six-game winning streak to end the regular season.
“It’s been a hard-fought season and we’ve had some guys do some incredible things just to turn the season around,” fullback Aaron Ripkowski said. “We fought hard to get to this point.”
Echoing the comments of many in the locker room, running back Ty Montgomery said he was proud of how the team came together in the face of adversity to get to the NFC title game.
“This season has still been a rewarding season for us even though we couldn’t get the big one,” said Montgomery, who started the season as a receiver. “To get this far, nobody thought we would make it this far winning all the games that we won. I can’t tell you how many backs we’ve had come in and out of the room. I can’t tell you how many injuries we dealt with through the season. It’s just battling and battling and battling.”
Emotional moment: Pro Bowl right guard T.J. Lang was emotional when being carted to the locker room after reinjuring his left foot in the third quarter.
Lang broke that foot earlier this season, but missed only three games after initially being told it could cost him up to two months. He admitted to still feeling pain in recent weeks.
Regardless, Lang soldiered on for an offensive line that Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy called the best in his 11 seasons in Green Bay.
An upcoming free agent this offseason, Lang said he felt some added emotion due to the uncertainty of whether Sunday was his final game with the team.
“That’s the first thing going through my mind there after I hurt my foot again, just hoping it wasn’t the last time I put on a (Packers) helmet,” Lang said. “It’s tough.”
A fourth-round pick out of Eastern Michigan in 2009, Lang has developed a deep connection with the team and community in his eight seasons in Green Bay. That’s what made Sunday’s ending even more emotional given his pending free agency.
“I think everybody in this locker room knows this is where I want to play,” Lang said. “It’s been eight years now. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’ve been saying that since the beginning. I love this team. I love Green Bay. I love everything about being a Packer. I love representing the city and the team. I want to be back.”
Along with Lang’s injury, starting left guard Lane Taylor (knee), right tackle Bryan Bulaga (concussion), defensive backs Micah Hyde (shoulder) and Kentrell Brice (shoulder), and linebacker Jake Ryan (shoulder) all left with injuries and didn’t return.
Peppers’ future: Peppers, the nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker, said after the game that he hasn’t considered whether he’ll return for a 16th NFL season in 2017.
Peppers, who finished second on the defense with 7½ sacks, moved into fifth all-time on the career sack list in 2016. Since signing with Green Bay in 2014, Peppers leads the defense with 25 sacks over that span.
“I’ll let you know when I find out,” he said, regarding his future.
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