Aaron Rodgers, on a dead-even wavelength with his receivers, was zeroed in, with 31 completions on 36 throws, as Green Bay smoked the Atlanta Falcons, 48-21, to earn a spot in the N.F.C. championship game.
With 3 touchdowns, 366 passing yards and no interceptions, Rodgers one-upped his Falcons counterpart Matt Ryan, a fraternity brother in the wing of up-and-coming quarterbacks, despite continually being handed unfavorable field position. Rodgers’s teammates ran unfettered patterns around and through the Atlanta secondary, easing his task.
“He was excellent today,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said. “He was on fire. Aaron was able to run the offense at a very high level.”
He did so by working the middle of the field, thus drawing in the linebackers and defensive backs, then striking to the outside.
“It was a special night,” Rodgers said, noting that the Packers did not have to dress a punter, seeing how one was not needed. “Mike got in a rhythm with the calls.”
The Packers’ defense, dented by an early score, stiffened as Ryan’s unit did not score again until the fourth quarter, by which time throngs of Falcons fans had taken to the area’s slick streets for the commute home. The body blows in between were two interceptions by Tramon Williams, one converted into a touchdown at a vital moment.
Green Bay (12-6) has entered the past four weekends in a win-or-be-done predicament. With one more reprieve, against the or on Jan. 23, the Packers would fill one sideline at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.
Saturday’s game bore little resemblance to Atlanta’s 20-17 win against Green Bay at the Georgia Dome on a last-minute field goal in Week 12 of the regular season, other than that Green Bay’s offense again showed worse run-versus-pass balance than a vertigo-stricken tightrope walker.
The rookie James Starks, who bubbled up from anonymity for 123 rushing yards against the a week earlier, gave Green Bay’s ground game somewhat of a pulse with 66 yards. Mostly, though, it was Rodgers and his free-running, sure-handed receivers who tormented the Falcons (13-4).
Thousands of cheeseheads — for Packers followers on the road, the faux wedge is the chapeau of choice — crashed a Georgia Dome crowd associated dietarily with grits, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. The soft ticket market, with seats available from licensed brokers for under $100, was attributed to snow and ice that paralyzed a metropolitan area ill-equipped to cope with winter weather and a limited franchise playoff legacy that preconditions many Atlanta fans to misfortune in the postseason.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, in fact, added direct flights out of Green Bay for Packers fans.
In a historical context, the matchup was bluebloods versus plebeians. Twelve league championships for Green Bay, none for the Falcons. Twenty Hall of Fame players whose careers are associated with the Packers, zero with the Falcons, though it is safe to commission a bust for former Atlanta cornerback .
The Packers claim a 21st Hall of Famer, a coach whose epic narrative has made the stage show “Lombardi” a Broadway hit.
On Saturday, the big hits at the outset belonged to the Falcons. They interrupted a dangerous catch-and-run by Greg Jennings when linebacker Stephen Nicholas slapped the ball loose and his teammate Brent Grimes fetched the fumble just inside Packers territory.
Michael Turner subsequently ran 12 yards for the initial score, one play after Falcons Coach Mike Smith, who routinely eschews field goals on fourth-and-short in the red zone, successfully punched up a first-down run.
The Packers took their time to pull even, Rodgers rounding off a 13-snap march covering nearly eight minutes with a 6-yard flip to Jordy Nelson.
The drive covered 81 yards, setting a pattern of cross-country travel. The Packers traversed 92, 80 and 80 yards for their next three scores.
The 7-7 tie lasted all of 14 seconds. Atlanta’s Eric Weems ran 102 yards with the kickoff, staring at nothing but green space for the last two-thirds of his runback.
Green Bay governed from then on, their touchdowns ranging from the commonplace (John Kuhn’s 1-yard run) to breathtaking (James Jones’s 20-yard reception with limbs fully extended).
Williams’s first interception foiled a Falcons threat. When receiver Michael Jenkins stumbled, he ran down Ryan’s floater in the end zone.
Then, with Ryan pressing to squeeze in a Falcons field goal before halftime, he threw a sideline pass intended to halt the clock. Williams, lying in wait, cut in front of Roddy White. Seventy yards later, Williams reached the end zone as time expired, and the Packers were ahead by 28-14.
“I recognized the formation,” Williams said, suspecting Ryan would aim for the edge. “I played outside leverage, with the receiver just outside of me. Once he made the out cut, I broke inside of him.”
Before Atlanta’s offense could spring into action in the second half, Rodgers scrambled 7 yards for a touchdown, and the spread was a yawning 21 points.
After Rodgers’s 7-yard scoring toss to Kuhn, the Packers grew satisfied with field goals, connecting on two.
“He likes to play in domes,” McCarthy said of Rodgers. “You can see why.”
And what is it with Rodgers and roofs?
“The weather is in perfect condition,” he said. “I also get to wear my favorite shoes, so my feet don’t hurt.”
Barefoot would have sufficed against such a compliant defense, though Rodgers must deal with the great outdoors next weekend.
Ryan was decent but — unlike Rodgers, who distributed passes to eight players — tended to lock into his confidant, White.
“It was just not a very good decision on my part,” Ryan said of the critical pick-six. “In that situation, knowing we are in field-goal range, I needed to throw the ball away.”
Thus the Falcons became only the third top seed in the N.F.C. over the past two decades who were unable to make hay out of home-field advantage
“Just because you have home field doesn’t mean you can just walk through the playoffs,” Smith said. “It’s a totally different season once the playoffs start, so hopefully we can learn from that.”