ATLANTA – The Packers didn’t help themselves early, but there might have been no stopping the Falcons on Sunday anyway.
Atlanta took an early lead, rolled up 493 yards of offense, and never looked back in ending Green Bay’s season and remarkable stretch run, 44-21 in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome.
“We ran into a buzzsaw and those guys performed great, and we didn’t have enough to keep up with them,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said.
“That clearly wasn’t the way we anticipated or prepared for our season to end, but I think that’s a credit to the Falcons, and frankly, we ran out of gas.”
The Packers had won eight straight, not only salvaging their season from 4-6 but giving them one to celebrate, making the NFC title game for the fourth time under McCarthy and the second time in the last three years.
But Green Bay didn’t play anything like it had for the last two months while Atlanta never slowed down. As the Falcons, with the league’s No. 1 offense, scored 10 points on their first two drives, the Packers missed a field goal and fumbled away what would have been first-and-goal on their first two possessions.
The 10-0 deficit swelled to 24-0 at halftime, as the defense missed multiple chances at turnovers, and when Falcons star receiver Julio Jones broke several tackles on his way to a 73-yard touchdown to begin the second half, the 31-0 deficit was way too much to overcome.
“We needed to keep pace with those guys, and we felt confident coming in here we’d be able to score points,” McCarthy said. “But we got behind and we got into a game you just don’t want to play, especially in this stadium.”
It was the final game in the history of the Georgia Dome, and in front of a raucously loud audience, the Falcons earned their franchise’s second Super Bowl trip.
The Packers were looking to get to the Super Bowl for the second time in McCarthy’s tenure, but it clearly wasn’t to be.
Without the early miscues – kicker Mason Crosby had made an NFL-record 23 straight postseason field goals, and the offense had committed just two turnovers in the previous eight games – maybe it’s a tie game at 10-all in the second quarter.
Whether or not it would have mattered is up for debate given how the Falcons were rolling, but the tough part is not knowing if the Packers could have had a chance in a shootout.
“That’s the what-if game, but it’s definitely uncharacteristic of our football team,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
“We hurt ourselves in the first half more than they really stopped us, but they have a good football team. There’s a reason they’re moving on to the Super Bowl, and they’re going to be tough to stop.”
Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who likely will win his first NFL MVP award the night before he faces either the Steelers or Patriots in Super Bowl LI, was on fire, completing 27-of-38 for 392 yards with four TDs and a 139.4 passer rating. Jones finished with nine catches for 180 yards and two scores.
Atlanta converted 7-of-9 on third down in the first half despite needing 6-10 yards to convert several times. In all, the Falcons scored six touchdowns and a field goal on their first eight possessions as Green Bay’s defense had no answers.
“We didn’t stop them at all defensively,” McCarthy said. “There’s definitely a reason why (Ryan) is up for the MVP. He’s a tremendous player.”
Rodgers threw three touchdown passes in the second half, but the Packers never got closer than a three-TD deficit. Rodgers finished 27-of-45 for 287 yards with one interception (on a third-and-forever deep ball) for a 91.6 rating.
“We just played a hot team,” Rodgers said. “You have to give them credit. Matt’s playing incredible right now.”
While the Packers got a Herculean effort from Jordy Nelson to play with broken ribs and catch six passes for 67 yards and a TD, the injuries continued to pile up.
Green Bay lost defensive backs Kentrell Brice and Micah Hyde, running back Ty Montgomery, linebacker Jake Ryan and three starting offensive linemen – guards Lane Taylor and T.J. Lang, and right tackle Bryan Bulaga – to injuries during the game.
The situation up front forced defensive lineman Letroy Guion to play on the offensive line for a final series with backup QB Brett Hundley in the game.
Getting Nelson, receiver Davante Adams and safety Morgan Burnett back for this game, albeit at less than full strength, spoke to the team’s resolve. The Packers were forced to fight through injuries all season long, and they won their share of battles in a memorable late-season streak, until Sunday.
“We’re one tough football team. It’s a great group to coach,” McCarthy said.
That’s something McCarthy said many times over the last few months, in bad times and in good. It got the Packers this far, even if the goal was to get a little farther.
“There’s only one team that was going to walk out of here today feeling the way it wanted to feel,” McCarthy said. “That’s the beauty of competing in this league. It’s not for everybody to get to this point. That’s the reality of why we work the way we work. They were better than us today.
“Every year is its own season, and this season I’ll remember a lot more for the positives than the way it ended, for sure. This was a helluva season. This team provided a lot of great moments, for me as a coach, for our organization, and hopefully our fans feel that way.”
Hodkiewicz: Nelson toughed it out for the team
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Hodkiewicz: Fast start set the tone for Falcons' victory