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By CHRIS HAVEL
Matty Ice KO’s Packers with late game-winning TD drive against Green Bay’s depleted defense
No Ty Montgomery. No Randall Cobb. No chance?
Not so fast said Aaron Rodgers, who turned in a vintage performance before a late Falcons’ touchdown gave Atlanta a 33-32 victory Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Rodgers completed 28 of 38 passes for 246 yards and four touchdowns to give Green Bay a 32-26 fourth-quarter lead. He was sharp from the outset. He led the offense with pinpoint passing, clever decisions in the pocket and turnover-free execution. He also flashed a fire and sheer exhilaration that was understandably absent during the offense’s recent struggles.
Rodgers gave the Packers every chance to steal a road victory against one of the NFL’s most potent offenses and a bona fide NFC championship contender.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough though.
A depleted Packers’ defense
The Packers’ defense tried gamely to compete with Atlanta’s potent offense, but ultimately it caved at crunch time. Ryan completed 9 of 11 passes for 75 yards on the game-winning drive, which was capped by an 11-yard TD strike to Mohamed Sanu, who got behind linebacker Jake Ryan.
The Packers’ defense was shaded toward Atlanta’s Julio Jones, perhaps in anticipation that Ryan would target his go-to guy.
Instead, Jones proved to be a decoy. He finished with just three catches for 29 yards and wasn’t a factor after spraining his ankle early in the game. Still, the Packers weren’t about to guess and be wrong about Jones’ health, and obviously elected to let someone else beat them.
That someone else was Sanu. The Packers’ secondary was without Sam Shields (concussion), Damarious Randall (groin) and Quentin Rollins (groin). Down to its fourth cornerback, Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers elected to keep three safeties on the field at all times.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett played all 63 snaps, while Micah Hyde was in on 97 percent of the plays. Marwin Evans and Kentrell Brice also saw significant time.
The plan was solid, in that it stymied the run and kept Jones in check. However, Ryan and Sanu were able to take advantage of all the attention given to Jones. Furthermore, tiny Taylor Gabriel (5-8, 165) struck gold when he got behind Ladarius Gunter on a perfectly thrown deep ball by Ryan, who finished with three touchdown passes on 28-of-35 for 288 yards.
So what did the Packers learn from this?
First, they discovered that they can take an injury-ravaged team on the road against a desperate playoff contender (the Falcons had lost two straight coming into the game) and compete.
The Packers came up short, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Atlanta was just better on this day.
The Packers did manage to regain some offensive rhythm through the air. They hit for five plays of 20-plus yards and got great contributions from several players.
Jeff Janis, Trevor Davis and Geronimo Allison became the first trio in Packers history to make their first NFL touchdown catch in the same game. Rodgers relied on all available weapons to move the football against a so-so Atlanta defense. The running game was absent, save for Rodgers’ scrambling.
I didn’t think I’d be saying this, but either Knile Davis needs to take it up a notch or two, or James Starks needs to return in a hurry. The Packers’ offensive line played well at Atlanta, and is only a healthy NFL-caliber running back plus Jared Cook away from being able to dominate.
Cook’s return is critical to the Packers’ ability to control the middle of the field. Richard Rodgers also needs to be more involved in the game plan.
Frankly, I was disappointed in Sunday’s outcome but not the Packers’ performance given the circumstances. This could have been really ugly. Instead, the Packers competed and nearly captured the victory.
Going forward, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy can build on this to illustrate that despite the challenge, Green Bay does possess the players to survive. The NFL season is like a 16-round boxing match.
The Packers may very well lose two or three rounds in ugly fashion. They also could drop another two by narrow margins. However, if they are really good in half their 10 wins, and borderline dominant in the other five, they should get to the postseason.
If nothing else, Green Bay showed Sunday that it can go on the road if need be in the postseason and compete against playoff-caliber opposition.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’s MVP Parties the evening before home games. Also check out our new Podcast: Between the Lines for more Packers insights. New episodes every Wednesday.