With the Green Bay Packers’ playoff chances on life support, an interim head coach at the helm, and another disappointing team coming to Lambeau, Green Bay had a simple question to answer Sunday: How much was Mike McCarthy to blame for the team’s ills this season?
Aaron Rodgers rediscovered his accuracy, the short-handed defense played its tail off, and the Packers used 34 straight points to throttle the reeling Falcons 34-20. After one week, Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst appeared to have made the right call in moving on from a man who spent 13 successful seasons as the head man in Green Bay.
Joe Philbin showed on the very first possession he was going to the mat for his team, challenging a pair of highly questionable catch calls by Julio Jones. Both failed despite appearing to be the wrong call on the field, and Jones found the end zone to give the Falcons an early lead. At least those timeouts couldn’t have been burned by the offense as the playclock was winding down before the snap.
On Aaron Rodgers’ first drive post-McCarthy, the ball flew out of his hand, getting out quickly to his playmakers. Rodgers went 6/7 for 62 yards on a five-play, 75-yard drive, ending in a Davante Adams touchdown catch. This was the kind of verve and pop most expected from the Packers offense all season, with the quarterback looking sharp.
With temperatures well below freezing at game time, a shootout fit for the dome in Atlanta had broken out.
That didn’t last long. A bizarre fumble from Ryan pushed the Falcons out of field goal range thanks to a blitz from Josh Jones off the edge. The Packers safety wound up right in Ryan’s throwing lane, causing the quarterback to try and stop his throwing motion. With the slick ball thanks to the cold temperatures, it squirted free, forcing Matt Bryant into a 53-yard field goal he left short.
Rodgers and Co. weren’t able to take advantage of the miscue with two straight incompletions and a third-down sack. This was the offense Green Bay had been for too much of 2018.
A three-and-out forced by Mike Pettine’s defense gave the ball back to the Packers who once again showed life on offense. But a missed facemask call on DeVondre Campbell on third down forced a long Mason Crosby field goal. Unlike Bryant, Crosby drilled his 50-yard field goal to give Green Bay a 10-7 lead.
Two plays later, Bashaud Breeland returned from injury to make one of the few big plays for the Packers defense this season, housing a Matt Ryan throw to the sidelines on third down. Given the composition of this secondary and Breeland’s talent, Brian Gutekunst should make re-signing Breeland a team priority this spring. Winning is great, but getting the chance to evaluate the roster in a lost season serves an even more important purpose at this point in the season for Green Bay.
Jaire Alexander matched Julio Jones all day, and though he gave up some plays, showed why this team has so much faith in him. He makes a handful of plays every game, often in ways corners aren’t expected to contribute. The 21-year-old rookie blew up a screen play to force a long third down in the first half. Alexander plays much bigger than his stature and his swagger rubs off on this secondary. At times, he’ll lose the ball in the air, but given how well he does just about everything else, Green Bay should believe more experience will aid his development in that area. After two muffed punts though, it’s time to put someone else back there.
Speaking of assessment, after a rollercoaster season, Mason Crosby’s future in Green Bay could be in doubt. On a cold day at Lambeau, he booted a pair of long field goals in the first half, including one as time ran out to give the Packers a 20-7 lead. He finished the day with two field goals, and showed why his quarterback so often mentions his ability to kick in bad weather as an underrated factor in his value to the team.
For his part, Rodgers also looked like the best version of himself, or at least a better version than we’ve seen this season. He finished the half 13/19 for 116 yards and the touchdown to Davante Adams. His Houdini run in the two-minute at the end of the first half sparked a skirmish leading to offsetting penalties, but also put the Packers in field goal range. His full arsenal was on display, with his accuracy returning along with his athleticism.
Atlanta still managed four first-half sacks with three starting linemen hurt for Green Bay. Lane Taylor, Byron Bell, and Bryan Bulaga all missed Sunday’s contest, although Justin McCray starting for Bell may well be an upgrade. Replacements Lucas Patrick and Jason Spriggs struggled with the speed and athleticism of the Falcons front, potentially a reason Philbin stayed away from the run game for much of the day.
Injuries or no—Alex Light temporarily had to sub in for Justin McCray, putting Green Bay down to its fifth guard—the Packers came out firing in the second half. A long Aaron Jones run and a commitment to get him the ball jump-started the offense once again. Throw in another handful of vintage Rodgers escapes and a beautiful throw to the back pylon for a touchdown blew the game open. Randall Cobb didn’t create much separation on a double move, but it was enough for Rodgers to slot the ball right into his arms, pushing the lead to 27-7.
That touchdown toss also broke Tom Brady’s record for consecutive throws without a pick and pushed Green Bay to 27 straight points after going down 7-0.
Then, Aaron Jones took over to ice the game. On an eight play 76-yard drive, Jones touched it on six of the eight plays including a 29-yard touchdown run. It was his fifth consecutive game with a rushing touchdown and this was the formula most thought the Packers would follow all season: use the pass to get the lead and salt it away on the ground.
Make it 34 unanswered.
And while the offense showed signs of life, the defense deserves considerable kudos in its own right. Matt Ryan broke Petyon Manning’s record for most passing yards in a player’s first 11 seasons, but outside of the first quarter, Ryan couldn’t find any kind of rhythm while the game was in doubt. After allowing an opening-drive touchdown, Mike Pettine’s group stiffened. In fact, until a touchdown early in the fourth quarter with the game already in hand, the Packers’ defense had scored as many points as the Falcons offense. Atlanta didn’t top 150 total yards until the clock ticked under five minutes in the third quarter.
No one should mistake Mike McCarthy’s presence as the sole reason the Packers haven’t looked like this all season. But Philbin did employ a number of schemes this team should have been using much of the year, between in-breaking routes to Davante Adams, more touches for Aaron Jones in the passing game, and a more quick-rhythm passing game.
McCarthy’s presence didn’t prevent the Packers defense from playing this well in September or October. But clearly Green Bay has the talent to beat down a likewise talented, but under-performing team. That’s why McCarthy no longer calls the shots at 1265 Lombardi. This win offers some evidence a change was needed, that this team could have been performing better with the right strings being pulled and a head coach in whom the players had more confidence.
It will take more than one game and possible dead cat bounce to vindicate Mark Murphy’s bold decision. But a beatdown of one of the most talented teams in the NFC hints at a quality roster in need of some minors tweaks, a little energy, and a little confidence. Aaron Rodgers looking more like Aaron Rodgers helps a little too.