Eight months after a battered, overmatched Green Bay Packers squad took a 44-21 beating in the NFC Championship Game, it appeared they would finally receive their chance to face off with the Atlanta Falcons at or near full strength Sunday night while spoiling the grand opening of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Those aspirations quickly dissipated as a cavalcade of Green Bay's most important players exited with injuries.
In truth, the twin absences of offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga likely sank the team's chances before the opening kickoff. The Packers worked around the limitations of missing just Bulaga a week ago in an impressive win over the Seattle Seahawks, but playing with a first-time starter at left tackle (Kyle Murphy) and a player making his NFL regular-season debut on the right (Justin McCray) immediately changed whatever offensive plan Mike McCarthy and the coaching staff had in mind for Sunday.
But the bodies kept dropping. Defensive stalwart Mike Daniels and No. 1 wide receiver Jordy Nelson left the game with hamstring and quad injuries respectively during the first quarter and did not return. Top corner Davon House departed with his own hamstring injury, leaving the secondary without its most experienced cover man. Kentrell Brice, a de facto starter as a key piece of the defense's "nitro" package, left before halftime with a groin injury. Randall Cobb also made a premature exit after aggravating his shoulder. Working without so many major contributors, the Packers looked roughly as shorthanded as they did during last season's demoralizing NFC title game loss.
The significance of the defeat depends almost entirely on the expedience with which the wounded Packers can return to action. Certainly, the offense cannot operate without any of its starting tackles, but it cannot approach peak performance minus Nelson or Cobb either. Likewise, a defense that appears to have made meaningful strides since last year needs Daniels to anchor its efforts. If any or all remain sidelined for a significant amount of time, Sunday's tilt will take on the reputation of a modern "Body Bag Game."
Packers lose early edge for NFC playoff positioning
No team can clinch a top playoff position within the first month of the season, let alone the opening two weeks. However, head-to-head matchups with likely in-conference playoff teams tend to decide seeding given the typical lack of separation between records at the top.
Green Bay has faced Atlanta twice in less than a year, each time on the road. The Falcons' offense performed better on the fast track of the Georgia Dome and, as the early signs suggest, in their new stadium as well. Their vast array of weapons become far more difficult to cover in those conditions, something the Packers have failed to respond to since their Super Bowl run seven years ago.
The win gives Atlanta a one-game advantage over Green Bay in the NFC standings, but it also provides the top head-to-head tiebreaker should both teams finish with identical records. That could mean another trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Packers if the two meet again.
The Packers have plenty of opportunities to make up the ground they lost during Sunday's loss to the Falcons, and envisioning a scenario where a rematch occurs in Lambeau Field rather than the iris-topped palace in Atlanta requires little creativity. Still, with both teams likely to finish with comparable records, the game could prove as meaningful as Green Bay's Week 1 win over Seattle in regards to tiebreakers.
Kevin King made the most of his playing time
While the Packers looked lost for most of Sunday's contest, a few bright spots offer hope for a better performance should these two teams meet again later in the season. Davante Adams settled in as the team's top boundary receiver following Nelson's departure and responded with 99 yards on eight catches including a beautiful diving touchdown late in the game. Ty Montgomery continues to emerge as a multi-purpose weapon, producing 110 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage.
Still, perhaps the biggest development occurred in the secondary where top draft pick Kevin King shut down the most gifted receiver in the league.
The rookie cornerback did not allow a reception during his 46 snaps, most of which came after the Falcons so thoroughly exploited Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins that defensive coordinator Dom Capers had to adjust his personnel. King drew Julio Jones on several occasions but gave no quarter, breaking up two of the four passes thrown while in coverage.
King appears to have put his preseason woes behind him at a particularly opportune time. The Packers face All-Pro wideouts A.J. Green and Dez Bryant over the next three weeks. With House's availability for those matchups unclear, the defense needs King to step into that role and become the reliable cover man the secondary has lacked since Sam Shields' head injury a year ago.