By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Monday Morning Quarterbacks have been harsh.
Green Bay faces as many questions about injuries as it does concerns in defeat
» Go to the game!
The conclusion by many is that Green Bay’s improved defense still isn’t nearly strong enough to hang with Atlanta’s high-flying offense.
The Packers couldn’t stop the Falcons in an NFC Championship rout, and they couldn’t slow them down in a 34-23 loss Sunday night at Atlanta in the newly minted Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
That is true but there were mitigating circumstances.
Never mind that the Packers’ injury sheet resembled a bullet-riddled target on a shooting range. Never mind that the Falcons’ offense was the NFL’s most prolific last season, or that Atlanta’s defense put up seven points on its own.
Never mind that Green Bay’s potent attack was shackled by injuries to tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga before kickoff and receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb after it.
That doesn’t include the loss of Mike Daniels, Davon House, Kentrell Brice and others on defense.
Clearly, the Packers have work to do, and excuses – like the Vikings, Lions and a handful of other teams – have never won a Super Bowl.
That said, the Packers’ most important takeaway in defeat was a still-in-one-piece Aaron Rodgers.
In a game with few Packers’ highlights, Rodgers’ 300th touchdown pass was one. It secured his place as the fastest quarterback to that number in league history. And it isn’t close.
The other highlight was Rodgers’ ability to walk away and be able to throw more touchdowns this week against Cincinnati.
If the Packers had won in convincing fashion, but Rodgers was lost in the process, Sunday night would’ve been a disaster.
The fact that the signal caller survived is a victory in itself.
Kyle Murphy and Justin McCray played their tails off, and Packers head coach Mike McCarthy did about as much as he could to keep Rodgers safe short of benching him.
Mercifully, the Falcons’ defense didn’t get crazy on him.
My respect for the Falcons’ defense and head coach Dan Quinn rose immensely last night. Rodgers got bent to and fro like a street sign in a hurricane.
A defense intent on doing him harm could’ve KO’d Rodgers into next season. On a handful of hits, the Falcons’ defenders brought down Rodgers but didn’t punish him in the process.
Clearly, Rodgers is going to be sore today.
It could’ve been far worse.
It could’ve been 44-21 – like the NFC Championship blowout – but it wasn’t.
Even when the Packers answered the Falcons’ opening-drive touchdown to make it 7-7 it never felt like Green Bay was going to win.
The Packers’ fate was sealed by the Falcons’ take-no-prisoners mentality in the first half. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the running backs played with a grudge on.
Ryan threw for 201 yards in the first half with Jones running rampant in the Green Bay secondary. Jones had five catches for 108 yards with 96 yards coming in the first two quarters.
“We came out aggressive,” Jones said. “We did a great job and got after them.”
A dicey offensive pass interference penalty on Packers tight end Martellus Bennett wiped out a big play late in the first half. The Falcons made it hurt when Desmond Trufant intercepted Rodgers at the Green Bay 36, and Ryan drove them to a late touchdown to make it 24-7 at the half.
On the second play of the second half, a Rodgers pass was ruled a fumble and Trufant recovered and ran for a 36-yard score.
By the time the Packers knew what hit them they were trailing 31-7 early in the third quarter. Without Nelson, Cobb and the tackles it was too big a mountain to climb.
So what now?
It’s back to the drawing board and practice, practice and more practice for the Packers.
They’ll also be spending a fair amount of time healing.
Green Bay’s medical staff might be the MVP’s this week.
Fortunately, Rodgers is OK aside from the normal wear and tear.
While Nelson, Cobb and the rest get healthy, the greater questions remain on the defensive side.
Daniels’ return is critical to the front seven. He and second-year tackle Kenny Clark are much better together than apart.
Also, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has to continue to mold and massage his unit while figuring out how best to defend the Falcons if (more likely when) they meet again.
On the bright side, rookies Kevin King and Josh Jones made some plays, and Clay Matthews seemed rejuvenated. Now, the Packers’ defense needs to buck up and the offense needs to get healthy as soon as possible.
Mostly, though, the single-most important takeaway is that Aaron Rodgers stayed healthy enough to play another day.