Injuries finally caught up to the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers' depleted defense was able to survive a long list of key injuries throughout the postseason, but the injury bug ruthlessly struck again in the NFC Championship game. On the game's opening kickoff, rookie safety Kentrell Brice sprinted downfield and delivered a hard hit on Atlanta's return man Eric Weems. Brice, who led Green Bay in tackles last week while replacing an injured Morgan Burnett, landed hard on his shoulder and left the game with an injury.
The scene of an injured Packer leaving the field became a trend. As the game progressed, Green Bay also lost linebacker Jake Ryan and defensive back Micah Hyde, among many others, due to injury.
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The combination of injuries and an uncharacteristic Packer offense that turned the ball over twice was too much for Green Bay to overcome in a 44-21 loss to the Falcons.
-- Atlanta began the game with a drive that set the tone for the NFC Championship. Quarterback Matt Ryan converted two third-down completions to set up a 2-yard touchdown reception for Mohamed Sanu, who caught the ball with his left hand as he was falling down into the end zone.
-- The Packers responded with a lengthy drive of their own that reached the Atlanta 23-yard line. However, kicker Mason Crosby missed his first playoff field goal since the 2010-11 season, and the Packers were left off the scoreboard. Green Bay's next drive saw similar results. The Packers drove 64 yards downfield and looked to be on the verge of scoring, but fullback Aaron Ripkowski fumbled at the Atlanta 11-yard line and the Falcons took over.
-- While Green Bay's offense struggled to capitalize, the Falcons were the opposite. Atlanta scored on four of its five first-half drives, opening up a 24-0 lead heading into the intermission.
-- After the Packers went three-and-out to start the second half, it didn't take long for the Falcons to strike again. Wide receiver Julio Jones trucked over Green Bay defensive backs LaDarius Gunter and Damarious Randall en route to a 73-yard touchdown reception to open up a Falcons' 31-0 lead.
-- The Jones touchdown commenced a second-half shootout that everyone expected to see in this game. Green Bay scored three touchdowns on its next three possessions, which were capped off with touchdown grabs from Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson and Jared Cook, respectively. However, the Falcons responded each time with scores of their own, so the scoreboard read 44-21 as time expired.
-- The Packers were forced to abandon the run early thanks to the Falcons' monstrous lead. Rodgers was subsequently their leading rusher, picking up 46 yards on four carries.
-- Ripkowski's fumble in the Falcons' red zone was the first of his young career. The Falcons had two fumbles of their own throughout the game, but they recovered both of them.
-- One week after his memorable catch to set up Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal, tight end Jared Cook led the team with seven receptions on 12 targets.
-- Aaron Rodgers finished the postseason 80 of 128 for 1,004 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 103.8 -- his best postseason passer rating since the Super Bowl title run in 2010-11.
WHAT IT MEANT
Rodgers' prophecy to "run the table" after Green Bay's 42-24 loss in Week 11 came up one game shy of an improbable Super Bowl berth.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Rodgers appeared to choke up during a postgame press conference when discussing Jordy Nelson's decision to play. The 31-year-old covered his fractured ribs (an injury he suffered just two weeks ago in a win over the New York Giants) with a military-grade Kevlar vest and still managed to haul in six catches for 67 yards and a touchdown.
Nelson's vest: patented composite, constructed of a ballistic blast shield, treated military-grade Kevlar & Accelleron force dispersion pad pic.twitter.com/BjEdGUDoRP— StaceyDales (@StaceyDales) January 22, 2017
DON'T FORGET ABOUT ME
After missing time with an injury mid-season tight end Jared Cook has quietly become one of Rodgers' favorite targets. He led the Packers with seven receptions against the Falcons, racking up 78 receiving yards and a touchdown. Third-year tight end Richard Rodgers is still in the mix after costing the Packers a third-round pick in 2014, but Cook's chemistry with his quarterback should have Green Bay taking a long look at Cook's one-year, $2.75 million contract.
With less than five minutes to play in the first half, the Packers were trailing 17-0 and Atlanta held possession. Quarterback Matt Ryan fumbled a snap at the Falcons' 40-yard line, and Green Bay linebacker Jake Ryan was there to scoop it up -- except the ball slid right out of his hands and back into the reach of Atlanta. The Falcons went on to punt on that possession, but Green Bay took over at its own 10-yard line instead of starting the drive with game-changing field position had Ryan cleanly fielded the fumble.
Zero. The shootout that many predicted was one-sided from the start. The Packers were shutout in the first half by a defense that started four rookies and four second-year players.
THEY SAID IT
"I think I have a number of years left in me to play at a high level. And we just have to make sure we're going all-in every year to win. I think we can take a big step in the offseason." -- Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers via the Associated Press
"I'm so proud of Jordy. I mean, it's incredible that he was out there." -- Aaron Rodgers on the play of Jordy Nelson
"What a great season. You hate to see it end this way." --Packers head coach Mike McCarthy via the Packers Radio Network
The Packers will clean out their lockers and head to the offseason with many questions waiting to be answered on defense. Aaron Rodgers, Ha Ha Clinton Dix and T.J. Lang will get the nod in next week's NFL Pro Bowl game.