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Packers-Falcons: What we learned

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay Packers remain in hot pursuit of the No. 1 seed for the NFC playoffs.

The Atlanta Falcons, well, they remain in pursuit of the championship in the woeful NFC South.

The Packers dominated the first half, then held off the Falcons 43-37 Monday night at Lambeau Field. Making his 100th career start, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 24 of 36 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns.

Led by quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones, whose 259 receiving yards were the most ever against the Packers, the Falcons chipped away at a 24-point deficit to pull within 10 points early in the fourth quarter.

The Packers briefly restored order on Rodgers’ 60-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jordy Nelson. Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman blocked the extra point, but Green Bay led 40-24 with 10:38 to play.

The Falcons responded, with Ryan hitting Jones three times to set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Roddy White. The two-point play failed, leaving Green Bay ahead 40-30 with 6:15 remaining.

Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin recovered the onside kick, and Mason Crosby tacked on a 53-yard field goal to extend the advantage to 43-30.

Atlanta wouldn’t go away quietly, with Ryan’s 2-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Harry Douglas on fourth-and-goal making it 43-37 with 2:11 remaining. However, Matt Bosher’s dribbling kickoff was easily corralled by Nelson at Green Bay’s 39.

With the Packers needing a couple of first downs to run out the clock, Rodgers ran for 12 yards, and running back James Starks delivered the crushing bowl with a 41-yard run to the 6.

“That’s what you look for,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who recorded his 98th career victory (including the playoffs), tying Vince Lombardi for second in franchise history. “When you get the ball back and they have two, three timeouts and a little over two minutes left in the game, that’s what you need to do. Great job by Aaron on second down there.”

Ryan finished 24 of 39 for 375 yards with four touchdown passes and one interception, with Jones doing most of the work. Despite missing the final drive due to a hip injury, Jones caught 11 passes, including one touchdown.

Green Bay (10-3) earned its fifth win in a row and ninth in 10 games to tie the Arizona Cardinals for the best record in the NFC.

“We’ve said it around here, you can’t really talk about the playoffs until 10 wins, so now that stuff starts to come together,” Rodgers said. “If you look at the NFC, you might have to win 11 to guarantee a spot, maybe 12 depending on how everybody plays. It’s an exciting time for the league, for the fans, for the fantasy owners, as well. I know this is kind of playoffs and the end of the run here. It’s an exciting time for football, and it will be a fun last three weeks. And then playoffs, hopefully.”

Atlanta fell to 5-8, but through the good fortune of playing in the NFC South, the Falcons are still tied for first place in the division.

“The opportunity keeps coming up for us,” Ryan said. “I think collectively we need to seize it. We are at the point in the season where it’s time. We have to play the kind of football that we are capable of playing for 60 minutes. We are in the mix, but we need to win football games.”

The Falcons got back in the game in the third quarter. On the first play of the second half, Ryan hit Jones for a gain of 79 to the Packers’ 3. On fourth-and-goal from the 5, Ryan connected with wide receiver Eric Weems for the touchdown.

After Atlanta forced Green Bay’s first punt of the night, Matt Bryant hit a 50-yard field goal to pull the Falcons within 31-17.

The Packers got a field goal on the ensuing possession to make it 34-17.

Green Bay led 31-7 at halftime, with Rodgers completing 18 of 25 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns and the Packers enjoying a 296-161 edge in yards.

“We didn’t execute in the first half,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “There were a number of plays, not only on offense, but on defense. We really had a hard time slowing them down in the first half. That is a very good football team. They have the best record in the NFL. We played much better in the second half than we did in the first half.”

What the Packers said:

“I’m excited about our team. There’s been some ups and downs on both sides of the ball all season, but we’re really getting this home-field advantage thing going, with the crowd noise, with the footing, with the way we’re playing being really balanced on offense. The defense, they’ll look at the film and they’ll correct things. I’m not worried about that. If it takes scoring 38-plus points to win, then that’s what we’ve got to do. There’s no excuses with our offense. We approach every drive like we’re going to score on that drive.” — Quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“We feel good about where we’re at. We’re not going to go out and shut teams down every game, you know? Tonight, those guys got in a rhythm, got a little bit too comfortable throwing pitch-and-catch, and that’s something we have to work on. But we won the game.” — Linebacker Julius Peppers.

What the Falcons said:

“The second half, I thought we battled, but I wish we could have played better in the first half and not got in that hole heading into the half. We fought back. I just wish we could have had another chance with the ball at the end of the game.” — Offensive tackle Jake Matthews.

“We don’t want to hang with anybody. That’s ‘moral victory’ talk. We want to win every game we play, and I think if you have that mindset, you can do great things, and I think when you have the mindset of, ‘We hung in there,’ bad things tend to happen, and that’s not our mindset.” — Wide receiver Harry Douglas.

What we learned about the Packers:

1. Green Bay’s offense is practically unstoppable. Put an extra safety in the box, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the passing game will put up monster numbers. Play two deep safeties to slow down Rodgers, and the running game will take over. The Falcons tried the two-safety approach and got torched for 179 yards on the ground, with running backs James Starks and Eddie Lacy combining for 148 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. “I think the offensive line has been playing so good that we’ve been controlling the line of scrimmage,” Rodgers said. “It allows you to extend some plays in the passing game. We ran the ball really well. … When the line plays like that, we can be balanced. We had some years there where we didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher and kind of were pass-first, and now we’re a little more balanced.”

2. Can Green Bay win a championship with its defense? A week after limiting Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to just 21 points, the Packers gave up 30 points in the second half alone to quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons. Ryan threw for 375 yards, and the Packers had no answers for receiver Julio Jones, who caught 11 passes (17 targets) for 259 yards and a touchdown. “Coming off the field, I think that it’s definitely a bitter taste,” nickel defender Micah Hyde said. “We definitely don’t want to finish like that, but at the same time, those good teams win ugly games. You get a win in the NFL, especially the 10th one, you’ve got to be happy about that.”

–QB Aaron Rodgers completed 24 of 36 passes for 327 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions in career start No. 100. Using 100 career starts as a mile marker, Rodgers ranks No. 1 in NFL history with 222 touchdown passes, 27,520 passing yards, a 4.11 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 60 games with a passer rating of at least 100. “It’s been fun,” Rodgers said. “It’s been a great 100 games started. When you’re a young player, you can only dream about these kind of opportunities. Then you get into it and you think, ‘I’d love to do 100 more.’ It’s fun to be able to be healthy after 13 weeks and to be able to play the way I want to play.”

–LB Clay Matthews recorded the team’s only sack, which extends its NFL-best streak to 33 consecutive games. With 55.5 career sacks, he passed Tim Harris (55.0) for No. 3 on the franchise’s career list.

–WR Jordy Nelson hauled in a 60-yard touchdown bomb in the fourth quarter. It was his league-leading fifth touchdown catch of 50-plus yards this season, and also his seventh touchdown reception of 40-plus yards this season, tying Billy Howton’s 62-year-old club record. “It’s fun to make those,” Nelson said. “It’s something we’ve connected on quite a bit. It’s always good to get them.”

What we learned about the Falcons:

1. If the Falcons play the way they did in the second half, they will run away in the dreadful NFC South. Green Bay has crushed just about everyone at home, but Atlanta outscored the Packers 30-12 in the second half. Of course, it is not a 30-minute game. Still, with quarterback Matt Ryan (24-for-39, 375 yards, four touchdowns) and receiver Julio Jones (11 receptions for 259 yards and one touchdown), they have a fighting chance. “We had no quit,” Ryan said, “but we put ourselves too far behind early on. When you make mistakes against a team like that, it is tough to overcome. Unfortunately, we just weren’t able to make enough plays to overcome what we did in the first half.”

2. Then again, with a defense like that, does it really matter? Maybe Atlanta will win the NFC South — someone has to — but then what? Jones was great, but he can’t tackle a running back or cover a receiver. In the 2011 draft, the Falcons sent their first-, second- and fourth-round picks and their first- and fourth-round picks of the 2012 draft to Cleveland to move up to No. 6 to get Jones. Some of those picks might have helped a defense that ranks 32nd in total yards allowed and 32nd against the pass. The Packers threw for 323 yards and rushed for 179 yards. On 10 possessions, Green Bay scored eight times, punted once and took a knee on Atlanta’s 9-yard line to end the game. “We did not tackle across the board tonight,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

–WR Julio Jones, one week ago, caught 10 passes for a career-high 189 yards against Arizona. On Monday, he tied his career high with 11 receptions and turned them into 259 yards and one touchdown. It was the most receiving yards by an opposing receiver ever against the Packers. “Julio played really, really well tonight,” QB Matt Ryan said. “He showcased on the national stage the kind of player that he is. That kind of production is huge for our football team.”

–QB Matt Ryan had a big night, completing 24 of 39 passes for 375 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. That gave him a passer rating of 116.9. He is now 37-4 when he has a passer rating of at least 100. During the second half, he was brilliant, going 18-for-22 for 263 yards, with all four scores and no picks, as the Falcons turned their five possessions into four touchdowns and a field goal.

–LT Jake Matthews played against his cousin, the Packers’ Clay Matthews. Clay Matthews, who plays inside and outside linebacker, finished with five tackles, including one sack. “It was fun,” Jake Matthews said. “I knew he was a really good player, and I knew it was going to be a tough matchup. Every week is a tough matchup. I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned in my first year. But I just keep going back to wishing we could have won that game.”


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