It all came crashing down with a thud.
The Packers, winners of eight straight games, had their Super Bowl hopes ripped out of their hands in a stunning 44-21 loss in the Georgia Dome against the Atlanta Falcons. They ran into “a buzz saw” of an Atlanta offense on Sunday, and with a Mason Crosby miss and a Aaron Ripkowski fumble on their first two drives, the slow start finally unmasked what we already knew.
Aaron Rodgers was like duct tape holding together cracks in a dam. If there was enough pressure, and the duct tape didn’t hold up to standards, the cracks would worsen and eventually come right out into the spotlight.
And that’s exactly what happened on Sunday.
Aaron Rodgers had been on a ridiculous tear down the stretch, almost singlehandedly willing the Packers to victories. It all culminated last week with his heave rolling right to Jared Cook to set up the game winner against Dallas. Naturally, people figured Rodgers would continue to do what he had been doing during the win streak. This is precisely why no quarterback has been like Rodgers. We continually expect obscene greatness day in and day out. This time, he didn’t start out hot and the Packers fell into a hole.
But, you can’t leave it all on Rodgers. He had the Packers moving in the right direction the first two drives. But, when a field goal sails right and a halfback fumbles inside the ten yard line, it really deflates momentum. The receivers dropped passes too. Yes, Aaron had a couple bad throws down the field, but he didn’t stop competing and finished with over 300 yards and 3 TDs. Still, in that game, you saw the cracks widen, and the dam burst.
What cracks burst open? Well, there wasn’t any secret about the Packers defense. Everyone knew coming in that the Packers would have to match Atlanta score for score because the defense wouldn’t get too many stops. That much was true about the NFC Championship Game. We knew Green Bay would give up points early, but the fact that Atlanta was able to churn out clock and limit Rodgers’ possessions was too much for the Pack to handle. The worst part about the defense is that no matter what Dom Capers tried, Atlanta’s offense had the answer. In their previous matchup in the regular season, the Packers didn’t blitz Matt Ryan much and gave him multiple coverage looks. Matt Ryan tore them up. This time around, Capers brought extra guys on blitzes and also played two deep safeties. No matter what, Ryan torched them with his multitude of weapons.
What else? Well, the injury bug was not kind to Green Bay again this season, which has turned into quite an alarming pattern in northern Wisconsin. The Packers consistently have guys go down throughout the season, and 2016 was no different. The Packers lost a key leader in an important group at the start of the year, and the effect rung deep. Losing Jordy Nelson in 2015 contributed to an underachieving receiving core that seemed lost without him. Losing cornerback Sam Shields in week one against the Jaguars proved too much. In what was supposed to be a deep secondary this season, the loss of Shields proved that a veteran presence was needed to make that unit run. It didn’t help that second year corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins were banged up all season long. They had to lean on Ladarius Gunter to cover number one wide receivers a lot of the season. There were other injuries on the defensive side of the ball as well. Nick Perry started out very well, but injured his hand later in the season. He came back with a club, but you wonder if that hampered his performance. Other guys who were expected to take on roles this year (Jayrone Elliott, Blake Martinez) got hurt during the year, which hampered the Packers ability to rotate and have more depth. Offensively, the Packers lost Eddie Lacy for the year early in the season, and James Starks never got back on the field after he got hurt.
The game Sunday was no different. Safety Kentrell Brice got hurt on the first play. Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Geronimo Allison all gave it a go battling injuries, Jordy most notably with broken ribs. Allison and Adams didn’t have a big impact. Late in the game, TJ Lang hurt his leg being pushed back on a passing play. Defensively, Jake Ryan got banged up on a couple plays. With the injuries continuing to pile up, who knows who would have been healthy if the Packers had made it to the Super Bowl.
Green Bay had one final crack. During their eight game winning streak, Green Bay dominated the turnover battle. On Sunday, the Packers killed themselves with turnovers and didn’t come up big with turnovers when they had opportunities. Aaron Ripkowski’s fumble was a killer for Green Bay as they hoped to cut Atlanta’s early lead to 10-7. Near the end of the first half, the Packers had a couple opportunities to come up with a turnover. A mistake with timing caused Taylor Gabriel to be right it front of the snap. Jake Ryan had a chance to come up with the ball and did not come up with it. Later, Evans, a corner that came up from the practice, had a chance to pick off a deep shot and flat out missed. Aldrick Robinson, the Falcons receiver, got more hands on the ball than Evans. Then, in the red zone, Ladarius Gunter dropped an interception that eventually turned into a Julio Jones back shoulder fade for six points. The Packers didn’t take advantage of their chances, and it hurt them.
So, where do the Packers go from here?
It’s interesting to watch Packers Twitter. Many fans want to jump the gun and want to fire Dom Capers, Ted Thompson, and even Mike McCarthy (although that has calmed down since the win streak began). Let’s address this now.
McCarthy is not getting fired. One, because he’s a highly successful coach, and he’s been to the NFC title game two of the last three years and has made the playoffs eight straight years. Second, when you have this continuity paired with success, it’s not optimal to change things up. The Bengals have stuck with Marvin Lewis over the years, and it’s real possible they’d be in absolute turmoil had they gotten rid of him a couple years back.
As for Dom Capers, I don’t know what else he could have done this season with the limited resources he was given. The pass rush was solid, and he got everyone involved, but his resources at linebacker and corner strapped him big time. The secondary just wasn’t healthy and it created issues. Capers had safeties in coverage towards the end of the season because of injuries. Given what he had, the Packers created turnovers down the stretch. Given resources, Capers will be fine.
Finally, Ted Thompson. I know it frustrates Packer fans when he doesn’t reach for guys in free agency. When he does, it always works out. Charles Woodson was huge for the turnaround of Green Bay’s defense. He found a gem with plenty in the tank in Julius Peppers. Jared Cook was very productive when he was healthy and provided the offense with a field stretcher. The Packers still succeed with the draft and develop strategy, and that won’t change. Thompson just needs to continue to draft and evaluate well and fill Green Bay’s holes. Speed on both sides are important in today’s game, and I know he will adapt.
How do the Packers reach another Super Bowl? That’s an answer for another post. But, for now, Aaron Rodgers said it best. It’s time for Green Bay to keep reloading for a championship run. There are plenty of free agents to be that the Packers can re-sign. The Packers have to continue to build and reinforce the offensive and defensive lines, and must continue to build depth off the edge. They need to find a fast, playmaking linebacker and difference makers in the secondary. It sounds like a lot, but the Packers have free agency and the draft to make a difference and get back to the Super Bowl.
We will be back, Cheeseheads. Keep believing. And yes, this loss hurts, especially the fact that we were 60 minutes from the Super Bowl. But, we can again appreciate Rodgers’ “run the table” comments, and then the Packers actually running the table to win the division. Aaron again showed us his hail mary prowess, and we will cherish that eight game run. You know we will be hungry to get the Lombardi in 2017.