ATLANTA — When the injury news broke about 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday night, everything changed.
With their offensive tackle position nearly wiped out, expectations for the Green Bay Packers in the NFC’s rematch of the year were immediately downsized from hopeful to uh-oh.
Instead of avenging that embarrassing loss to Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game in January and showing that they’ve closed the gap on the Falcons, the Packers’ goal should have been to make sure quarterback Aaron Rodgers survived the game in one piece.
The Packers didn’t see it that way, of course. Though starting offensive tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari were late scratches due to injuries and their replacements were as green as the artificial turf at brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Packers came out fighting. And despite losing wide receiver Jordy Nelson and defensive end Mike Daniels to injuries early in the game, they battled the Falcons to a 7-7 draw in the first quarter.
But the Packers’ personnel limitations began to show against the defending NFC champions in the second quarter and the Falcons rolled to a 34-23 victory in a game that followed a pattern similar to Green Bay’s 44-21 playoff loss to Atlanta nine months ago.
So how meaningful was a second consecutive drubbing in Atlanta?
Because Rodgers was forced to play in handcuffs due largely to the threat of Green Bay’s neophyte tackles being overrun by Atlanta’s fast, aggressive defense on artificial turf in front of a crowd energized by the first game in the new stadium, it didn’t mean all that much. The offensive struggles were inevitable given the mismatch that existed on the outside or the Packers might have turned the game into a shootout.
Not that the Packers were looking for any sympathy afterward.
“Two new tackles, brand-new loud stadium, on turf, a nine-man rotation D-line, that’s all part of game-planning,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
“We were prepared to play whatever direction we needed to play. That’s the NFL. That’s football.”
The most disheartening aspect of the outcome was that quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and the Falcons offense once again made the Packers’ pass defense look helpless. The sight of Falcons receivers running unchecked through the defense for a second consecutive game brought into question the entire Packers offseason, which seemed geared toward adding speed specifically to stop Atlanta’s passing game.
“We’re right there,” cornerback Davon House said. “We’ve just got to get off the field on third down. We have to eliminate the big plays. I don’t know how the game got as bad as it was. It happened fast. But yeah, we’d love to see them again at home. They’re good. They’ll probably win their division, so yeah, we’ll see them again.”
At least Rodgers survived to see any rematch, should it happen in the playoffs.
That’s good news given how far the experience and talent level dropped off when the announcement was made that Bulaga and Bakhtiari couldn’t go. Given that Jason Spriggs, who backed up both tackle spots as a rookie last season, was already ruled out after injuring his hamstring in the season-opening victory over Seattle, the tackle talent was as low as it has ever been in modern Packers history.
Kyle Murphy and Justin McCray entered the game with one start between them — by Murphy in place of Bulaga at right tackle in the opener. McCray’s only regular-season action was five special teams snaps in the opener.
McCarthy called the game according to his tackles and, really, could you blame him? He used formations with a fullback and multiple tight ends to help with the pass protection, employed rollouts to get Rodgers outside the pocket and called mostly short, safe passes that would allow Rodgers to take three-step drops and get the ball out quickly.
Not only did that limit the Packers’ big-play capability on offense, it didn’t always work, in part because Murphy and McCray struggled to hold up. McCray gave up two sacks and Murphy one and McCray’s false-start penalty killed a promising drive when the Packers were within seven points in the second quarter.
But the most devastating play came after the Falcons had taken a 24-7 halftime lead. When McCray failed to cut block Vic Beasley Jr. on the second play of the second half, Beasley smashed into Rodgers, whose pass attempt went backward and was grabbed by cornerback Desmond Trufant, who returned the fumble for a touchdown. That made the score 31-7. Though Rodgers and the Packers refused to quit and put up some more points using an up-tempo offense, the game was over at that point.
The Packers arrived in Atlanta primed to make amends for the game in January, but it wasn’t to be. On this day, they simply didn’t have the manpower to get it done. That doesn’t mean they have given up hope of getting it done.
“I think we can beat anybody at home,” Rodgers said. “We don’t look at it as closing the gap. Obviously, if it comes down to some sort of tiebreaker when we get down to December and January, this game could be a big one and we might have to come back here. But I think we can beat anybody at home.”
Indeed, this budding NFL feud isn’t over yet. All Sunday’s game did was delay the real rematch between these NFC powers.