Monday, December 9, 2013

The 53 - Packers beat the Falcons at home

The Green Bay Packers held a slight edge all-time against the Atlanta Falcons, 15-13 (including playoffs) coming into their Week 14 match-up.  Before the season it looked like this game could be an NFC Championship Game preview.  Instead heading into the game the Packers were 5-6-1 while the Falcons were 3-9.

The Packers were without the services of starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers due to a broken collarbone for essentially the sixth game in a row so the Packers started Matt Flynn ahead of Scott Tolzien in hopes of getting their first victory of 2013 sans Rodgers, so far they've gone 0-4-1.

A family friend Brother Patrick gave me four tickets to the Packers/Falcons game but I was unable to attend what would have been my fourth Packer game of this season so my cousin Jim and his family used the tickets.  I hope that my family got to enjoy some of this pregame fun.

At kickoff the weather reminded me of two previous Packers/Falcons games.  On the negative side of the coin I thought of when the Michael Vick lead Falcons dealt the Packers their first playoff loss in franchise history at Lambeau Field (previously 13-0) beating the Packers 27-7.  I watched that playoff loss at a bar in Florida with Fernando, Gaber, and Sug after we had just drove straight from Chicago to my parent's place in Punta Gorda, FL.  On the positive side of the coin I thought of the last NFL game ever played at County Stadium in Milwaukee on December 18, 1994 when Brett Favre rushed for a touchdown on the last play of the game to give the Packers a 21-17 victory over the Falcons.

The inactives for the Packers against the Falcons were: Kahlil Bell (RB, healthy scratch), Chris Harper (WR, healthy scratch), Marshall Newhouse (T, healthy scratch), Nate Palmer (LB, healthy scratch), Aaron Rodgers (QB, broken collarbone), C.J. Wilson (DL, ankle), and Jerel Worthy (DL, healthy scratch).

The Packers won the toss and elected to defer to the second half, which gave the Falcons the ball to start the game.  The Falcons put together a good drive setting up a 4th and 2 at the Green Bay 35 yard-line but for some reason Falcons head coach Mike Smith decided to punt. Given that the Falcons were 3-9, it seemed like a gutless call.  What do the Falcons have to loss in that situation?  The Packers capitalized on the following possession scoring a touchdown on an impressive 18 play, 86-yard drive that resulted in a one yard touchdown run by rookie running back Eddie Lacy.  One footnote to the opening touchdown drive for the Packers, it was kept alive by a defensive holding penalty by rookie linebackers Paul Worrilow.

The Falcons evened the score 7-7 in the second quarter on a 36-yard catch and run by wide receiver Drew Davis for a touchdown.  Packers middle linebacker Brad Jones failed to get home on a blitz on that play so Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was able to hang in the pocket and connect with Davis right in the spot where Jones would have been if he was not blitzing.  I feel like a broken record but it seems like every time the Packers blitz a middle linebacker, whether its Jones or A.J. Hawk, neither seem to get home.  Oddly both of those players struggle to cover tight ends and running backs as well.  I guess damned if you do, damned if you don't with Hawk and Jones.

Following the touchdown the Packers took over at their own 23 yard-line.  Lacy did not pick up the blitz on the first play from scrimmage and Flynn was sacked by Falcons safety William Moore.  Flynn fumbled the ball and Falcons recovered at the Green Bay 13 yard-line.  The Falcons turned that great field position into a touchdown to go up 14-7 thanks to a short touchdown catch by Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez with safety Morgan Burnett totally burned by the play fake on that play.

On the following drive the Packers put together a nice drive that resulted in field goal to make the score 14-10.  Based on a few throws on that drive Flynn still looks shaky throwing deep.  On the following series the Packers defense finally got a stop to give the Packers the ball with 2:20 left in the half.  After the Packers moved the ball fairly well on offense, it looked like their playoff hopes were flushed down the toilet when on a pick-six gave the Falcons a 21-10 lead.  The pick-six was set-up by an errant throw by Flynn looking to hit fullback John Kuhn that was kicked into the air by Worrilow.  Falcons linebacker Sean Witherspoon caught the kicked ball and returned it 71-yards for a touchdown.

The Packers got the ball back down 21-10 on their own 32-yard line with 23 seconds left in the first half.  Packers head coach Mike McCarthy actually had the offense run plays instead of kneeling.  Lacy got hurt on the third and final play called by McCarthy.  I know Lacy can get hurt on any play but I would rather see the Packers only expose Lacy when there is a remote chance that they can score, which is not an inside hand-off on 3rd and 10 from their own 32-yard line with a few seconds in the half.  Thus the Packers went into halftime on quite a sour note with the fans actually booing and me speculating that McCarthy should replace Flynn with Tolzien.

Leaving the playoff implications aside, it is too bad that the game was going so bad at halftime because the Packers honored recent NFL Hall of Fame inductee linebacker Dave Robinson.  Robinson teared up a couple times during the classy ceremony lead by former Packer center and Packer radio commentator Larry McCarren.  Robinson seemed really touched by the whole event based on his post-game interview.

Following Robinson's ceremony, the second half started with a whimper for both teams as the Packers and Falcons traded three-and-outs.  On the next drive, the Packers got into field goal range thanks to an impressive 46-yard pitch and catch between Flynn and wide receiver Jordy Nelson.  If Flynn would have hit Nelson in stride that probably would have been a touchdown. You know any time that I can get in a criticism of McCarthy, I seize the opportunity.  I would have gone for it when McCarthy decided to attempt a field goal on 4th and 3 at the Atlanta 15.  Place kicker Mason Crosby converted the 33-yard field goal to pull the Packers within eight points at 21-13 but my thinking was that the Packers would only get into the red zone a few more times given Flynn's inability to drive the ball down the field.

The Packers defense had another nice stop on the next drive but the offense was only able to muster another field goal on the next drive to cut the score to 21-16.   The Packers have struggled to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns all season but I would bet that Rodgers converts at least one of the two field goal drives just discussed into touchdowns.

As the 4th quarter started, Fox flashed a stat that the Packers defense has given up 107 points in 4th quarter this season, which is the most in the NFL...yikes.  Luckily the Packers clamped down when outside linebacker Mike Neal stripped Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Packers defensive lineman Johnny Jolly recovered the fumble.

The Packers took over at the Atlanta 21 yard-line with 13:50 remaining in the game and the Packers trailed the Falcons by five points.  That drive resulted in a nice touchdown catch by tight end Andrew Quarless to make the score 22-21.  McCarthy made the right decision going for two but made the wrong play call trying to run a fade route to wide receiver James Jones that fell incomplete.  I would have liked to see a run in that situation given the fact that the Packers have a wrecking ball in the backfield in Lacy.  The touchdown and missed two-point conversion put the Packers up 22-21 with 12 minutes to play.

On the next drive the Falcons missed a 52-yard field goal by two yards.  On the play before the kick Jolly tackled running back Jason Snelling for two yard loss, which you could argue was the difference between the Packers leading 22-21 and going down 24-22 given how close the Falcons were on their field goal attempt.

On the next drive the Packers couldn't get anything going so they went three-and-out.  Following a punt by the Packers, the Falcons got the ball back at their own 17 yard-line with 4:38 left in the game.  On that drive the Packers lost Brad Jones to an injury.  On the following play the Packers lost Jolly and Jones's replacement middle linebacker Jamari Lattimore, which forced the Packers to play cornerback/safety Jarrett Bush in the dime for the rest of the game.

The Falcons moved the ball a little but coming out of the two minute warning the Falcons faced a 4th and 5 from the Green Bay 33 yard-line.  Instead of attempting a 50-yard field goal, the Falcons went for it.  Ryan found Gonzalez for a first down but Gonzalez dropped the ball with Bush covering him.  It looked like Gonzalez should have caught Ryan's pass despite Bush's blanket coverage.

That meant the Packers got the ball back with 1:55 remaining in the game up 22-21.  Following three runs by Lacy, the Packers were forced to punt with a little less than a minute remaining in the game.  After a perfect punt by Tim Mastay, the gunners for the Packers Bush and cornerback Davon House tried to get out of the way instead of attempting to down the ball on the one yard-line because their momentum most likely would pushed the ball into the end zone for a touchback.  Falcons punt returner Robert McClain picked up the ball and returned it eight yards to give the Falcons the ball with no timeouts and 46 seconds on the clock at their own 9 yard-line.

After picking up 48 yards through the air on a couple plays that could have been more if Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas did not drop a simple catch to get the Falcons in field goal range, the Falcons faced a 3rd and 10 from their own 40 yard-line.  Ryan went to Douglas again but he was triple covered. Bush intercepted Ryan's pass to give the Packers their first win in six games, which means that the Packers have gone 363 games since their last six-game winless streak, the 4th longest in NFL history.

I've linked to as many plays above as I could from, click here for the full highlights of the Packers/Falcons game.  Thanks to their win over the Falcons, the Packers won their 14th consecutive regular season game at Lambeau Field in December/January.  That streak started on Sunday, December 28, 2008 with a 31-21 win over the Detroit Lions to finish the 2008 regular season 6-10 in Rodgers's first season as the starter for the Packers.  That is sort of a hallow streak though because the Packers lost to the New York Giants two seasons ago at home in the playoffs.  Papa Cheese and I attended that game in-person so that sad 37-20 loss on Sunday, January 15, 2012 is seared in my memory.  I actually got to talk with McCarren for a few minutes following the Packers/Giants game and he seemed just as bummed as me, which made the loss a little more palatable for me.

The win for the Packers means they improved to 6-6-1.  The Lions lost on the road in a snow globe to the Philadelphia Eagles to drop to 7-6.  The 6-6 Chicago Bears host the 7-5 Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football.  Even if the Bears beat the Cowboys, the Packers will only trail the Bears and Lions by 1/2 game with three games to play.  Here are my updated rankings for The 53 following the Packers/Falcons game:

The 53
1. Aaron Rodgers (QB, LR 1)
2. Clay Matthews (OLB, LR 2) 
3. Jordy Nelson (WR, LR 3)
4. Eddie Lacy (RB, LR 7)
5. B.J. Raji (DL, LR 8)
6. T.J. Lang (G, LR 4)
7. Morgan Burnett (S, LR 5)
8. Josh Sitton (G, LR 6)
9. Evan Dietrich-Smith (C, LR 11)
10. James Jones (WR, LR 9)
11. David Bakhtiari (T, LR 10)
12. Sam Shields (CB, LR 13)
13. Mike Daniels (DL, LR 12)
14. Tramon Williams (CB, LR 14)
15. Don Barclay (T, LR 16)
16. Nick Perry (OLB, LR 17)
17. Brad Jones (MLB, LR 15)
18. A.J. Hawk (MLB, LR 18)
19. Davon House (CB, LR 19)
20. Micah Hyde (CB, LR 21)
21. Datone Jones (DL, LR 20)
22. Jarrett Boykin (WR, LR 22)
23. Tim Masthay (P, LR 23)
24. Mike Neal (DL/OLB, LR 24)
25. Johnny Jolly (DL, LR 25)
26. Jerel Worthy (DE, LR 28)
27. Ryan Pickett (DL, LR 26)
28. Mason Crosby (K, LR 27)
29. Matt Flynn (QB, LR 30)
30. Jamari Lattimore (LB, LR 29)
31. Derek Sherrod (T, LR 37)
32. Jarrett Bush (CB, LR 31)
33. Brett Goode (LS, LR 35)
34. Andrew Quarless (TE, LR 38)
35. James Starks (RB, LR 34)
36. Sean Richardson (S, LR 43)
37. Scott Tolzien (QB, LR 32)
38. M.D. Jennings (S, LR 33)
39. Brandon Bostick (TE, LR 40)
40. John Kuhn (FB, LR 36)
41. Ryan Taylor (TE, LR 42)
42. Josh Boyd (DL, LR 49)
43. C.J. Wilson (DL, LR 41)
44. Chris Banjo (S, LR 39)
45. Andy Mulamba (LB, LR 44)
46. Myles White (WR, LR 46)
47. Lane Taylor (G, LR 47)
48. Jake Stoneburner (TE, LR 48)
49. Victor Aiyewa (LB, LR 51)
50. Marshall Newhouse (T, LR 50)
51. Nate Palmer (LB, LR 52) 
52. Chris Harper (WR, LR 53)
53. Kahlil Bell (RB, LR N/A)
Physically Unable to Perform
1. JC Tretter (T)
IR, Designated for Return
1. Randall Cobb (WR)
Injured Reserve
1. Jermichael Finley (TE)
2. Bryan Bulaga (T)
3. Casey Hayward (CB, LR 16)
4. DuJuan Harris (RB)
5. Jonathan Franklin (RB)
6. Robert Francois (MLB)
7. Greg Van Roten (C/G)
8. Sam Barrington (LB)
9. Seneca Wallace (QB)
10. James Nixon (CB, LR 53)
11. Kevin Dorsey (WR)
12. Sederrik Cunningham (WR)
1. Jeremy Ross (WR, Lions)
2. Jerron McMillian (S, free agent)
3. Michael Hill (RB, Buccaneers)
3) Jordy Nelson (WR, LR 3): After wearing a green Donald Driver #80 jersey since 2010, Cheesehead Chick broke in her new jersey for the Packers/Falcons game...a green Jordy Nelson #87 jersey.  Nelson caught four passes for 85 yards, which is much better than last time Cheesehead Chick broke-in a new jersey.  I was excited for Cheesehead Chick to get a jersey so we snagged her the aforementioned Driver jersey from the Packers Pro Shop.  That game, Week 7 of the 2010 season at home against the Vikings, Driver broke his 133 game streak with at least one reception.  Luckily Cheesehead Chick was a not a cooler for Nelson like she was for Driver.

4) Eddie Lacy (RB, LR 7): Going into the game the the Falcons allowed a 100-yard rusher in nine consecutive games.  Although the Packers broke that streak, Lacy still had 20 carries for 65 yards and a touchdown.  Lacy also had three receptions for 25 yards.  Lacy has a great combination of patience and violent running style, which makes him a handful for defenses.  I wanted to get a Lacy jersey much earlier this season when I attended the Packers/Browns game but was unable to procure the jersey back in October.  I am very superstitious about what I wear for Packer games so I am happy to be 1-0 wearing the Lacy jersey.

9) Evan Dietrich-Smith (C, LR 11): A knee injury knocked EDS out of the Packers' Thanksgiving loss to the Lions, which was complicated by the fact that he sprained his ankle in practice earlier this week.  Luckily EDS was healthy enough to play against the Falcons because the Packers do not have another true center on The 53 given that right guard T.J. Lang filled in at center against the Philadelphia Eagles for the first time in his career.  The Falcons registered five sacks against the Packers but at least a few of those sacks are on Flynn's inability to get the ball out.  Given the offensive line struggles the last few weeks, can you imagine how things would have been sans EDS?

25) Johnny Jolly (DL, LR 25): Following Jolly's fumble recovery, Cheesehead Chick actually asked if Jolly lost weight.  I honestly think that is the first time in my entire life I've ever heard someone ask whether Jolly lost weight.  Leaving the weight discussion aside, it looks like Jolly is finally healthy again so he is starting to wreak havoc in the backfield again.  As I discussed a few weeks back, the Packers have four defensive lineman including Jolly that are set to be free agents this off-season.  Given Jolly's off-the-field issues, I think that makes him the most cost-effective option but I actually see Jolly getting more than the three-year, $7.5 million with $2 million guaranteed than I projected just a few weeks back.  If Jolly continues to play like he did against the Falcons.

29) Matt Flynn (QB, LR 30): The Packers ran a fair amount of no-huddle on offense against the Falcons.  As I discussed the way the Packers handled the last few minutes of the first half above, it seems like Flynn is not able to execute the no-huddle when it matters though.  Leaving aside the 46-yard hook-up between Flynn and Nelson, I still question whether Flynn can consistently drive the ball down field.  Flynn finished 24 for 32 throwing for 258 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception for a 95.6 passer rating in what I hope is Flynn's last snap for the Packers.

32) Jarrett Bush (CB, LR 31): The Falcons receivers did Ryan no favors with 5 drops but even factoring in the drops, I was nervous to see Bush playing in crunch time due to injuries to Jones and Lattimore. Bush had his best coverage of the day on the interception that sealed the victory for the Packers.  As I've said many times, it is never good to see Bush on the field on defense but he actually played fairly well when thrust into duty following all the injuries the Packers suffered on defense.

34) Andrew Quarless (TE, LR 38): Six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown is clearly Quarless's best game as a Packer but those performances have been the exception to the rule as opposed to the norm throughout his career in Green Bay.  Two other tight ends on The 53 added two catches a piece against the Falcons: Bostick for 28 yards and Taylor for seven yards.  Collectively that gave the Packers 10 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown, which is the type of production the Packers need to get out of the tight end position from one guy not three guys combined. Taylor is a core special teams player so his position is safe.  The big question is whether Bostick can become the athletic hybrid tight end/wide receiver the Packers think they have in Bostick.  If Bostick can become that guy, the Packers might low-ball Quarless this off-season or even let him walk.

36) Sean Richardson (S, LR 43): I've discussed a number of times in this space how I see Richardson's physical abilities making him a difference maker at safety.  After M.D. Jennings struggled in the first half against the Falcons, it looked like Richardson got an extended look in the second half when the defense as a whole looked much better.  My guess is that Richardson is the starter opposite Morgan Burnett at safety for the foreseeable future with Jennings and Chris Banjo serving as backups.

The Packers are 1-4-1 since Rodgers broke his collarbone on the first offensive series against the Bears on Monday Night Football on November 4, 2013.  The Packers go on the road next week to face the Dallas Cowboys on December 15, 2013 in the same stadium that Rodgers and Company won Super Bowl XLV over the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The original prognosis was that Rodgers would be out four to six weeks.  The Packers/Cowboys game would be the outer edge of six weeks.  Based on Rodgers waiting till Friday to be declared out against the Falcons this week, the hope is that another week will allow his collarbone to fully heal. Given that the Packers are right in the middle of the face to win the NFC North, the speculation all week will be whether Rodgers is healthy enough to help the Packers on their stretch run to the playoffs.

Check back if there are any changes to The 53, otherwise make sure to catch Monday Night Football tonight when the Cowboys visit the Bears because those are two of the final three opponents the Packers face to close the 2013 regular season.

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