GREEN BAY—The Packers-Falcons series in the current era will forever be remembered for Aaron Rodgers’ otherworldly performance in the 2010 NFC divisional playoffs.
The last two meetings, in 2011 and ’13, have been a different story, however. While also producing Packers victories, they have featured difference-makers of the unsung hero variety.
Given the Packers’ propensity of late for utilizing virtually all their personnel on both sides of the ball, perhaps another not-so-obvious protagonist or two will emerge Monday night at Lambeau Field.
“We’re all in this together,” veteran safety Morgan Burnett said. “It’s not just 11 guys on the field. Everyone is rotating in and out, and you have to be prepared when your number’s called. Guys have been stepping up to the challenge.”
Rewind the clock three years and the Packers headed into the Georgia Dome as the defending champions sporting a perfect 4-0 record. A Falcons team bent on revenge in the playoff rematch jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and the Packers lost veteran left tackle Chad Clifton to a hamstring injury in the second quarter.
That forced second-year tackle Marshall Newhouse, who had just taken over two weeks earlier on the right side for an injured Bryan Bulaga, to move to the left side while rookie first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod came off the bench to play right tackle.
Neither young lineman had played those positions before in an NFL game, and they received a baptism by fire in a noisy dome with their team already trailing and the home crowd in a prime-time frenzy.
It didn’t matter. Rodgers got rolling again, throwing for 396 yards and two TDs as the Packers ripped off 25 straight points to stay unbeaten.
The defense needed an unsung hero that night, too. With the Falcons trailing 22-14 and driving in the fourth quarter, Matt Ryan tried to hit veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez deep down the seam. But as safety Charlie Peprah converged on Gonzalez as the pass arrived, the ball was tipped, and Peprah alertly spun around, found the floating ball and picked it off in the red zone as he fell to the ground.
Certainly no one thought heading into that game that the defending champs’ fate would hinge on the trio of Newhouse, Sherrod and Peprah, but they were nonetheless instrumental in the outcome.
Last year’s contest with the Falcons at Lambeau produced a similar set of out-of-nowhere stars, and not just because Matt Flynn was quarterbacking for an injured Rodgers.
Rallying from an 11-point halftime deficit, the Packers had cut it to 21-16 when the defense came up with a pivotal turnover in the fourth quarter. Mike Neal, barely wet behind the ears as an outside linebacker but forced to play there more than expected due to injuries, strip-sacked Ryan. The comeback story of the year, Johnny Jolly, playing in his first season since 2009, recovered at the Atlanta 21-yard line.
Four plays later, Flynn found tight end Andrew Quarless for what proved to be the game-winning score. The TD for Quarless was his first since his rookie season of 2010, as he had missed the tail end of 2011 and all of ’12 with a knee injury.
Then, on Atlanta’s final two possessions, it was dime defensive back Jarrett Bush to the rescue. On fourth-and-5 from the Green Bay 33 with just under two minutes left, the Falcons eschewed the long field goal because one possession earlier kicker Matt Bryant had just come up short from 52 yards out.
In going for it, Ryan went to his old reliable, Gonzalez, and Bush was right there to cause Gonzalez to bobble it for a turnover on downs. Finally, on a last-ditch drive, Bush picked off Ryan near midfield in the final seconds.
The dramatic 22-21 win kept the Packers’ season alive, and the names Neal, Jolly, Quarless and Bush had a lot to do with it.
So, what does all this mean for Monday night, as the Packers and Falcons meet again? Perhaps nothing. Then again, a quick glance back at last week’s win over the Patriots provides some suggestions.
Linebacker Sam Barrington showed up in the run defense and nearly intercepted a Tom Brady pass. Defensive end Datone Jones disrupted things a couple of times as he looks recovered from his ankle injury. Running back DuJuan Harris appeared close to breaking a kickoff return or two, while fellow running back James Starks made a tough catch on a wheel route out of the backfield for 28 yards. Even little-used receiver Jarrett Boykin caught a swing pass out of a funky formation for his first reception since Week 3.
None of those deeds rose to the level of unsung hero, but they’re worth remembering this week with the Falcons coming to town.
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