ATLANTA – If familiarity does indeed breed contempt, then just imagine how much the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons will hate each other come January.
Assuming there is a playoff rematch in their future, that is. To hear Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji talk in the wake of Sunday night’s against-the-odds, show-‘em-what-we’re-made-of 25-14 victory, the undefeated Packers won’t have to worry about seeing the Falcons again anytime soon.
“We have better players, we have better coaches, we’re a better team,” Raji said after the Packers (5-0) rallied from a 14-0 deficit – and did so without both their starting offensive tackles – to score the final 25 points of the game to beat the Falcons (2-3). “Usually better teams win games. We settled down and played our game, and we won.”
Playing for the third time in 11 months, and with the Falcons still smarting from the Packers’ 48-21 thrashing of them in the NFC Divisional Playoffs at home as the No. 1 seed, the days leading up to the showdown at the Georgia Dome were filled with jabs and taunts: From Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recalling Falcons wideout Roddy White’s “borderline disrespectful” comments about the Falcons being the better team last year; to White responding that Rodgers “reaching” for motivation was a sign of weakness; to Rodgers remembering Falcons defensive end John Abraham repeatedly mocking his championship belt celebration; to Raji essentially calling the Falcons offensive linemen no-talent hacks for their cut-blocking and after-the-whistle hits.
So in the wake of the Packers’ prime-time victory – a triumph that gave the Packers their first 5-0 start in 46 years and their sixth in franchise history, with the previous five all leading to championships – one can only wonder if a playoff rematch will be the NFL equivalent of two of baseball’s most bitter rivals, the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, facing off in the National League Championship Series.
For while the Packers and Falcons aren’t division foes, the Packers sounded downright giddy about sticking it to their new “rivals.”
“It’s definitely another dagger in their chests,” Raji continued. “They’ve been talking the whole offseason, they were talking before the game. We don’t worry about that. We’re the champions. We play like champions. We coach like champions. People who talk generally don’t get to where they want to go. And obviously with this team, it’s evident.”
What’s evident with the Packers, meanwhile, is that no matter who gets hurt, no matter what the odds, they don’t think they should lose. That, and Rodgers & Co. are scary good, even with backups Marshall Newhouse and Derek Sherrod manning the tackle spots with Bryan Bulaga (knee) inactive and veteran left tackle Chad Clifton going down with a hamstring injury with 9 minutes, 45 seconds left in the second quarter.
After watching 15 players land on injured reserve en route to the Super Bowl XLV title last season, nothing seems to faze them anymore.
“Look, 5-0 feels great, but we’re looking at greatness,” veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said. “If you look back, and I don’t want to make it too much about last year, but what we went through last year injury-wise, no team’s gone through anything like that and we still prevailed. That’s kind of our mindset now. Guys are going to go down, we understand that. But for us, there’s no excuse why we can’t win just because guys do down.
“We expect to win. That’s point-blank. We feel like we have the talent, regardless of who’s in, who’s not. We have the coaching to get (that talent) coached up so when they do have to go in they’re prepared to go in. We feel like it doesn’t matter who we put out on the field, we expect to win, and we expected to win tonight.”
And win they did, something they’ve now done for 11 consecutive games – seven straight regular-season games, three playoff games and Super Bowl XLV.
“At halftime, we didn’t talk about the score, didn’t talk about what went wrong. We talked about ‘adversity football,’” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, using one of his buzzwords. “It’s a strength of this football team. We’re building something special with our ability to make plays when we need them. I thought our football team did an excellent job with that in the second half.”
The Falcons won the coin toss and drove right down the field on the Packers on the opening drive, converting three third downs en route during a 13-play, 80-yard, 6:45 march that ended in a wide open White grabbing a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan for a 7-0 lead.
Ryan converted a third-and-2 with an 8-yard completion to Tony Gonzalez, a third-and-10 on a 13-yard crossing route to Harry Douglas against Tramon Williams, and a third-and-6 from the Packers’ 14 with a 9-yard completion to Gonzalez against safety Charlie Peprah. On the next play, Woodson lost track of White, who was all alone as the ball floated down to him.
“My eyes were in the backfield,” Woodson said. “That’s on me.”
The Packers appeared to have an answer, though, driving from their own 14 to Atlanta’s 42 by mixing the run (Ryan Grant with 6- and 9-yard runs, James Starks with an 8-yarder) and the pass (a 14-yard third-and-7 connection to Jermichael Finley). But then Grant fumbled on a second-down run – his first fumble after 333 consecutive carries without one, dating back to the end of the 2008 season – to kill the drive and give the Atlanta offense the ball back 60 yards from the end zone.
And after another 10-play, 6-plus minute drive, the Falcons were back in. This time, it was Michael Turner diving in from a yard out for the 14-0 lead with 12:26 left in the half.
Suddenly, a team that never trailed by more than a touchdown at any point last season was in its second double-digit first-half hole in five games, having trailed Carolina by a 13-0 score in Week 2.
Then Clifton went down in a heap and had to be helped off the field, unable to put any weight on his right leg. That thrust rookie first-round pick Derek Sherrod, who was inactive for his first three NFL regular-season games, into action, with fill-in right tackle Marshall Newhouse moving to Clifton’s spot and Sherrod coming in on the right side.
“No panic. There was no panic,” said Rodgers, who absorbed a season-high four sacks but still wound up completing 26 of 39 passes for 396 yards and two touchdowns without an interception (117.0 passer rating) while completing passes to an astounding 12 different receivers.
“We have a lot of confidence. This is a different football team than in years past. We expect to win when we take the field. There was no panic in the locker room.
“It was one of those games where a lot of stuff didn't go your way. We didn't run the ball that well, we dropped some passes, I missed a couple reads, it was just a choppy game. But we made enough plays to win.”
With the Falcons chewing up most of the first-half clock on their two touchdown drives, the Packers only had the ball two more times in the first half after Grant’s fumble. And while they ended up settling for 32- and 35-yard Mason Crosby field goals, they successfully trimmed the lead to 14-6 at the break.
“‘Just settle down. Just settle down,’” Raji said of the halftime mantra on defense. “They made some plays, we made some mental errors. We just had to settle down and play our defense. We knew it’d only be a matter of time before our offense catches up. We just had to weather the storm and hang in there.”
After the Packers got the ball to start the second half and went three-and-out, the defense went into lockdown mode, giving up a stunning 78 yards on Atlanta’s next five possessions.
“I feel like we started extremely fast. The first quarter is the way you want to play football,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “I liked where we were sitting at halftime. … (And then) nothing that we tried in the second half was very efficient at all.”
Crosby pulled the Packers to within 14-9 on a 56-yard field goal – tying his career long and the franchise record – with 5:28 left in the third quarter, and it was clear the momentum was shifting. Sherrod and Newhouse were effectively protecting Rodgers, the defense forced a three-and-out on the next series, and it appeared the Packers were one play away from taking control.
That one play came when Rodgers sold a play-action fake to Grant and hit James Jones with a laser 25 yards downfield. Jones, who had lined up in the right slot, got behind safety Thomas DeCoud after cornerback Brent Grimes blitzed after lining up across from Jones. Another 45 yards, and Jones was in the end zone, his 70-yard TD giving the Packers a 15-14 lead. While the 2-point conversion attempt failed when Finley dropped a catchable pass, the momentum had swung.
“In the beginning, they had us on our heels a little bit. We were having some mental errors, people not being where they were supposed to be, guys not in their gaps – stuff like that,” said safety Charlie Peprah, who would deliver a huge interception with 7:32 to play. “But we came out the second half and said, ‘We’ve got to tighten up,’ and we did that, and then A-Rod did the rest.”
The offense got the ball back at its own 32 after another Atlanta three-and-out, and Rodgers made two huge third-down throws: A 22-yard strike to Finley to convert a third-and-10, and a 10-yard strike to Randall Cobb on third-and-3 from the Falcons’ 39. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Rodgers led Greg Jennings on a crossing pattern, with Jennings catching the ball at Atlanta’s 15, then sprinting toward the left sideline and diving for the goal line pylon for the touchdown and a 22-14 lead.
Still within a touchdown and two-point conversion, the Falcons drove to the Green Bay 29 before the defense rose up. Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop came on a delayed blitz to throw Ryan for an 11-yard loss, and Peprah picked off a pass intended for Gonzalez at the Packers’ 14 after it caromed off both Gonzalez’s hands and Peprah’s with 7:32 to play.
The offense then embarked on a methodical 12-play, 66-yard drive that ate up 6:22 of clock before bogging down at the Atlanta 12, forcing Green Bay to settle for Crosby’s fourth field goal, which made it a two-score game and gave Raji the chance to gloat.
“We adjusted better, we had better players, we had better coaches, so we played better,” said Raji, who didn’t sound like a man expecting a playoff rematch. “I think the (New Orleans) Saints are a better team. They have a better quarterback. The team’s a little bit better. This team is OK. Hopefully they get some things together and they’ll be all right.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.