Defense sets table for Packers' rally in Atlanta
In case you needed reminding, the Green Bay Packers are the defending Super Bowl champions.
They reached the top of the NFL mountain last season, two games after a 48-21 playoff win in Atlanta served notice to everyone that the Packers were in it to win it. Back at the scene of that postseason romp Sunday night, Green Bay sent the message that it's not going away anytime soon.
It makes the most sense to start with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. Despite being without right tackle Bryan Bulaga and losing rock-solid left tackle Chad Clifton in the first half, the Packers still put up more than 400 yards of offense. Rodgers was his usual, unstoppable self, completing passes to 12 -- yes, 12 -- different receivers.
Green Bay didn't even flinch after falling behind 14-0 on the road, nor when it was still 14-6 at halftime.
But for as much credit as the Pack offense deserves -- short answer: a lot -- it couldn't have done anything Sunday night without the Green Bay defense.
Atlanta seemed like it might be on its way for a bit at the start of the game. Matt Ryan found Roddy White for a 5-yard TD in the first quarter, then Michael Turner ducked in from 1 yard out in the second.
Two possessions, two touchdowns.
And then nothing else the rest of the game.
The Packers only sacked Matt Ryan once and didn't force their two turnovers until late in the fourth quarter -- both coming on deep passes that ricocheted off Atlanta receivers and into the arms of Green Bay defenders.
Atlanta will probably glance at those stats and wonder what exactly happened, why it couldn't gain more yards or score more points.
There were some penalties here and there, the worst being a holding call on Atlanta's Tyson Clabo that wiped out a 47-yard Ryan pass and killed the Falcons' last drive of the first half. Aside from that, it was just Atlanta banging its head against a brick wall.
For Atlanta, it had to feel plenty familiar. That playoff loss no doubt still lingers in the Falcons' minds. They led in that one, too -- 7-0 after a hard-fought first quarter, then 14-7 -- before the wheels came off. Just like this rematch, the Falcons had no real answers on either side of the ball.
Atlanta's now 2-3 on the season, two games back of New Orleans in the NFC South, on the fringe of the playoff race and miles away from claiming a spot among the conference's elite teams.
For the second time in just a few months, the Packers showed the Falcons what an elite team looks like.
Green Bay still has a long road to 16-0 or a repeat Super Bowl. Still, if the defense on display for the final two-and-a-half quarters Sunday is the one that's here for the long haul, this might be a runaway train.
There are still road games at San Diego, the Giants and Detroit -- the third of those three on Thanksgiving Day, in what could be a gigantic NFC North showdown -- as well as a couple of tricky home games. But this looked like one of the major hurdles for the Packers this season.
Can it really be this easy? How many other teams could go without their two starting tackles on offense and still roll up 25 points in three quarters? How many could spot a team like Atlanta a 14-0 lead, on the road, on national TV, and then cruise to a victory down the stretch?
Not many. Maybe not any.
The defense was supposed to be the Achilles' heel of this team. Everyone knows what Rodgers is capable of and how ridiculously deep the Packers are at the skill positions. The general consensus was that any team wanting to beat the Packers would simply have to outscore them.
No one's figured out how to yet. The Falcons, for all the yards they allowed, actually did a pretty decent job slowing Green Bay's attack. Four Packers drives ended in field goals, after all, a sign that the opposing defense is at least holding the fort.
Had someone told the Falcons going into Sunday night that 26 points would win it, they probably would have taken it.
That's the thing about championship teams, though -- no matter the circumstances or the style of play, they find a way to give themselves a chance.