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By CHRIS HAVEL
Big plays were the difference.
There were the big plays the Packers didn’t make, and the ones the Atlanta Falcons did en route to a 44-21 victory over Green Bay in the NFC Championship at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
Mason Crosby’s missed field goal from 41 yards, Aaron Ripkowski’s fumble deep in the red zone and a pair of drops on would-be interceptions were just a few of the Packers’ mistakes.
Those were the lowlights. Citing them all would be too cumbersome, not to mention depressing.
The Packers’ wondrous eight-game winning streak came to an abrupt halt at the hands of the Falcons. I can’t say the better team won, but the best offense certainly carried the day.
Atlanta’s Matt Ryan toyed with the Packers’ secondary all day. The Falcons’ quarterback stood tall and assured in the pocket while Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and Co. ran unchallenged through the heart of Green Bay’s secondary.
So what happened?
The Falcons’ intentions were clear from the start. They aimed to attack the Packers’ defensive backs early and often. They never let up, and it led to an impressive eighth-straight, game-opening touchdown drive.
The Packers’ promising response stalled at the Atlanta 23, and completely fizzled when Crosby’s 41-yard try sailed wide right.
The Falcons bumped their lead to 10-0 after a holding penalty killed their next drive. It forced Atlanta to settle for a 28-yard field goal and the Packers’ defense breathed a collective sigh.
The relief was short-lived.
Aaron Rodgers came back with a brilliant drive only to see Ripkowski’s lost fumble foreshadow what was to come.
The rest is just statistics, second-guessing and chronicling.
For the Packers, the reality is this: They are a few key pieces away from being a top NFC contender for Super Bowl LII.
A pass rusher, an inside linebacker and another defensive back are imperative. Re-signing Nick Perry and Micah Hyde also is critical for the defense.
I suspect Julius Peppers may decide to retire.
He had a terrific chance to get to the Super Bowl, but the Falcons were just too good. I’m having a difficult time imagining Peppers going through another season of limited snaps, mid-week days off to rest and so forth.
Clay Matthews had an opportunity to assert himself as a top-end pass rusher on Sunday. He came up short. Matthews generated little pressure and always seemed to be a half-step too late.
Rookie nose tackle Kenny Clark and veteran leader Mike Daniels were rocks against the run, but did little to push the pocket in Ryan’s face. That needs to improve next year.
Criticism comes easy after a 23-point blowout loss. That’s especially true when it happens in a championship game.
The Silver Lining
The fact is that Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the quarterback squeezed about as much as they could from this season.
So many different players contributed in roles both great and small. Ladarius Gunter, Geronimo Allison, Dean Lowry, Blake Martinez, Kentrell Brice, Trevor Davis, Jason Spriggs and Joe Thomas are all young players coming off quality seasons.
Add returning veterans such as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Ty Montgomery, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Jake Ryan and Daniels, plus the offensive line, and the nucleus is impressive.
Still, it wasn’t enough to compete with Atlanta on their turf.
The Packers need to re-sign Jared Cook, play a bit in free agency and get after it in the draft.
The NFL’s MVP
Meantime, painful as it is, the Packers’ loss bears reflection.
They will be razing the Georgia Dome – home to the Falcons since 1992 – as this was their last game in the facility.
It only felt like the roof was falling in on the Packers.
The Falcons’ Ryan completed a tidy 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns. He was seldom harassed and even added a 14-yard touchdown scramble for good measure.
Ryan is the NFL’s MVP and he played like it.
The Robin to his Batman – Julio Jones – carved up the Packers’ defense. He caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. At times he was unstoppable. At times the Packers’ defense was simply culpable.
“Their offense is hot right now,” Rodgers said. “Playing a team like that, you’ve got to start faster. We had no points in the first half. You’re not going to win many games like that.”
The Packers’ eight-game winning streak ended with a thud. Or a dud, perhaps, better explains it. Either way it was ugly.
The Packers’ 24-point halftime deficit was largely their own doing, although I doubt Green Bay’s defense could’ve done enough to stay close.
It seemed as if Ryan and the Falcons’ offense could do whatever it wanted to do, whenever it wanted to do it.
Meantime, Rodgers finished 27 of 45 for 287 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. It wasn’t nearly enough.
So what’s next?
Now, the Falcons (13-5) will prepare for the Patriots (16-2) in what should be a Super Bowl LI shootout between Ryan and Tom Brady.
As for the Packers, they are left to dwell on their second NFC Championship loss in three seasons, and what might’ve been.
At least, the 2017 season is right around the corner.
Let’s see what happens in the draft.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’s MVP Parties the evening before home games. Also check out our new Podcast: Between the Lines for more Packers insights. New episodes every Wednesday.