Falcons put in promising effort, but can't outlast red hot Rodgers, Packers
Here's what we know for sure: Because the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons lost 43-37 to the Green Bay Packers on Monday night, no team in that division will have a winning record when the 2014 regular-season is said and done. But for all the jokes (rightfully) made at this division's expense, this Falcons team has proven it could be a dangerous entrant into the postseason if it can get there. Last Sunday, the Falcons beat the Cardinals, who were 9-2 at the time, 29-18. And now, during this Monday Night game at Lambeau Field against arguably the NFL's best team, Mike Smith's team came back from a 31-7 halftime deficit to make the game against the Packers competitive. Receiver Julio Jones, fresh off his thrashing of Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson for 189 yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions, did even more to Green Bay's defense with 259 yards and a touchdown on 11 catches.
Atlanta's secondary played fairly well, but in the end, it was Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense that proved to be the better series of weapons. When the Packers traveled to Seattle for the 2014 season opener, Rodgers didn't test Richard Sherman's side of the field, Mike McCarthy was stuck in a three-wide formational malaise and Eddie Lacy rushed 12 times for 34 yards as the defending Super Bowl champs rolled Rodgers' team in a 38-16 drubbing.
Safe to say, as strong as Seattle's defense has looked of late, the current Packers offense would provide a far more daunting test. The Packers put up three very important numbers on this night: McCarthy equaled Vince Lombardi's total of 98 regular- and post-season wins, Rodgers became the quarterback with the most passing yards through his first 100 games at 27,520 yards, and the Pack kept pace with the Arizona Cardinals at the top of the NFC with a 10-3 record. Rodgers probably sealed up the NFL MVP award in this game as well, with his 24 completions in 36 attempts for 327 yards, three touchdowns and no picks.
Still, there's a lot to fix if the Packers want to make it all the way to the Super Bowl, and that's on the defense. Inexplicably, Dom Capers and Green Bay's pass defense was unable to adjust to Jones' great play with the simplest of counters, such as putting a dedicated safety up top to bracket the receiver and give help to the poor souls who had to cover Jones one-on-one from the line of scrimmage.
Did Rodgers imagine that it would be a one-score game at the end? "Not really, to be honest with you," he told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game. "They have a great quarterback, and they played until the end. There's a lot of fight in that team. Sometimes, games are going to be like this, where you have to score 43 points and put up 500 yards and pick up our defense, but if that's how we have to win, we will."
Three thoughts from tonight's game:
1. This Aaron Rodgers guy? He's pretty good
Rodgers made his usual bevy of incredible throws, but it was his touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson with 24 seconds left in the first half that was perhaps the most impressive. Rodgers started to scan to his left from the Atlanta 10-yard line, turned to scramble to his right as he was flushed out by Falcons end Kroy Biermann (Atlanta's only consistently convincing pass rusher) and threw a perfectly placed and timed pass over the head of safety Dwight Lowery for the score.
That's the hidden genius of Rodgers, and it has been for years. He's almost better when you pressure him than he is in the pocket because he has a supernatural ability to keep his mechanics repeatable when when he's running. A lot of quarterbacks try to make that happen, and do so about one time in 10, but Rodgers has it down as part of his game-to-game routine. Per Pro Football Focus, Rodgers came into this game with 38 completions in 84 attempts with six touchdowns and one interception when under pressure this season.
"It's preparation," Rodgers said, when asked about his career year. "It's the trust that Mike [McCarthy] and I have, and the offensive line has been a big key for us. The time I've gotten from them has been great; it allows our playmakers to get open and make plays. We have balance with Eddie and James [Starks] running the football, and everything's just kind of clicking right now."
It helps to have Nelson on the team. After reeling in a 60-yard TD against the Falcons, Nelson has tied the team record with seven touchdown passes of 40 or more yards that was previously set by Billy Howton in 1952.
"It takes a lot of time," Nelson said of the communication between himself and Rodgers. "We've been together seven years now, and you build on it every week in practice, in meetings, in games. You just get a feeling for what the other person wants, and making sure we're on the same page. He can make a lot of plays with his feet, so we just try to create a little separation and make it easy on him."
Covering this passing game from front to back? That's not easy for anyone.
2. Eddie Lacy has added a dangerous dimension to Green Bay's offense
With all that said, it was Lacy and Starks who were responsible for Green Bay's first three touchdowns. Starks hit a three-yard run in the first quarter, and Lacy scored on a one-yard run and a one-yard pass. The Packers ended the game with 179 rushing yards on 30 attempts, and Lacy made a number of plays in which he exhibited elite power and elusiveness on the way to his 73-yard night.
And because Lacy and Starks provide a legit ground attack, you will now see the inverse of the back-off coverage the Packers used to see all the time. From time to time, cornerbacks and safeties will not only sell out to blitz (not a good idea, for reasons already detailed), but also stack up against the run. And when you drop your assignment to deal with Lacy, you are basically giving Rodgers a night of target practice.
One such play came with about six minutes left in the third quarter. Rodgers had Nelson outside left, and cornerback Robert McLean was cheating inside to spy Lacy. At the snap, Nelson ran a route upfield on the numbers with nobody around him, as McLean was gone and Lowery was late to the party. It was a 28-yard gain, and had Rodgers not underthrown it, it would have been an easy touchdown. When it is time for the Packers to either go on the road or host playoff games at home, the physical presence and clock control given to them by that running game will be a huge advantage, especially if the defense continues to be a worrisome thing.
3. Julio Jones is a ray of bright light on an average Falcons roster
Had Jones managed to stay healthy throughout his career, there's little question that the Alabama alum would be right up there with Calvin Johnson when people talk about the default best receiver in the NFL. He's never played all 16 games in a season since the Falcons traded a haul of picks to select him with the sixth pick in the 2011 draft, but he's been fairly dominant in the 2014 campaign, despite the team's overall malaise and Matt Ryan's occasionally sketchy decision-making. Against the Packers, Jones made Capers' defense pay over and over for ill-conceived and blown coverages. He's faster than just about any cornerback he faces, he will dominate physical battles at 6-4 and 220 pounds, and he's as good at anyone in the league when it comes to bringing in contested catches. For the second game in a row, Jones has showed he's the kind of player who can turn a game around all on his own, and that makes the Falcons, who will not finish the season above .500, a weirdly dangerous team in the hypothetical postseason.