The Green Bay Packers got a virtuoso passing performance by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and more major contributions on defense by cornerback Tramon Williams. And they, not the Atlanta Falcons, played like a dominant team Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.
The Packers beat the Falcons with relative ease, 48-21, in a conference semifinal here to advance to next weekend’s NFC championship game.
Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns in a breathtaking showing that further justified the Packers’ decision to make him their starter and oust legendary quarterback Brett Favre, against Favre’s wishes, in the summer of 2008. Rodgers didn’t throw an interception and also ran for a touchdown, then gave way in the final minutes to backup Matt Flynn.
The sixth-seeded Packers, who needed a win on the final Sunday of the regular season to secure the NFC’s last wild-card playoff spot, scored 35 consecutive points after the Falcons grabbed a 14-7 lead on Eric Weems’s second-quarter touchdown on a kickoff return.
Williams, who had a late interception to seal the Packers’ first-round playoff triumph at Philadelphia, added two more interceptions Saturday of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the second of which he returned for a touchdown as time expired in the first half. Fullback John Kuhn had one touchdown run and one touchdown catch for the Packers. Rodgers also had touchdown passes to wide receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones.
Place kicker Mason Crosby provided a pair of fourth-quarter field goals in what was, by then, a rapidly emptying stadium. The Packers will play at either Chicago or Seattle in the NFC title game, depending on the outcome of Sunday’s Bears-Seahawks game at Soldier Field.
The Falcons were the NFC’s top playoff seed after going 13-3 during the regular season. But they unraveled Saturday after starting the game solidly, crafting an early lead on a touchdown run by tailback Michael Turner and Weems’s kickoff return. Ryan threw a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Roddy White in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. But it was far too little, far too late.
The Packers were coming off a road triumph over the third-seeded Eagles. That win meant there wouldn’t be a return to Atlanta this postseason by Eagles quarterback Michael Vick to face his original NFL team. It also established the Packers as an extremely dangerous team in these playoffs, given that they’d gotten some effective running by rookie tailback James Starks to complement the passing of Rodgers.
The Falcons went 7-1 at home during the regular season, with the only loss coming to the New Orleans Saints in their next-to-last game of the season. That forced the Falcons to beat the Carolina Panthers in the regular season finale to wrap up the conference’s top seed. They defeated the Packers at the Georgia Dome during the regular season, but were short-handed in the secondary Saturday against Rodgers because cornerback Brian Williams was on the inactive list due to a knee injury.
It didn’t take the offenses long to get going. The Falcons took the lead on their second possession of the night. Coach Mike Smith left his offense on the field for a fourth-and-one gamble from the Green Bay 13-yard line, perhaps sensing this wasn’t the sort of game in which field goals would be sufficient to win. The Falcons got the first down on a one-yard run by fullback Ovie Mughelli, and on the next play Turner weaved his way around defenders for a 12-yard touchdown dash.
But Rodgers was on target from the outset, and the Packers had a swift reply. Rodgers’s passing took the Packers down the field, and he zipped a six-yard throw to Nelson for the touchdown.
Weems caught the ensuing kickoff in his end zone, sprinted straight up the middle of the field, eluded Crosby with a fake to the left and a sharp cut to the right and outraced everyone else in pursuit for a 102-yard touchdown. But Rodgers and the Packers were just getting started. Rodgers took the Packers 92 yards for a touchdown, ending with Kuhn’s one-yard run.
The Falcons squandered a scoring chance when Ryan threw an end-zone interception to Tramon Williams, and Jones outjumped Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes to catch Rodgers’s 20-yard touchdown lob 42 seconds before halftime. That capped Rodgers’s 18-for-21, 234-yard, two-touchdown passing show in the first half.
The Packers weren’t finished, however. Ryan, trying to get the Falcons down the field in a hurry, rolled to his left and threw a pass toward his favorite receiving target, White, along the sideline. But Williams cut in front of White and grabbed the pass, then raced 70 yards to the opposite end zone with no time on the clock. That quickly, the Packers had a two-touchdown lead at the intermission.
They made it 28 straight points – and a 21-point advantage – in the third quarter when Rodgers improvised for a touchdown on a seven-yard scramble. The Packers got the ball back and made it a 42-14 game on Rodgers’s seven-yard touchdown pass to Kuhn.