Whenever a football team fizzles on a big stage, the easy — and almost automatic — reflex is to blame the quarterback. After all, the signal-caller is typically the most high-profile (and highest-paid) player on the team, the man most capable of single-handedly winning or losing a given game and a leader, both in the huddle and in the locker room.
With that in mind, it likely comes as no surprise that Aaron Rodgers is being duly criticized in the wake of the Green Bay Packers’ surprisingly lopsided 44-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons Sunday at the Georgia Dome. But for all Rodgers’ shortcomings in the NFC Championship game, there’s a strong case to be made that blame for the loss — the third largest defeat in franchise playoff history — falls on someone, or something, other than the two-time NFL MVP.
That by no means suggests that Rodgers is beyond reproach when it comes to his team’s failures, but here are five reasons Sunday’s debacle was not his fault:
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Mason Crosby’s missed first-quarter field goal
In Green Bay’s thrilling divisional round win over Dallas, Packers kicker Mason Crosby hit field goals of 56 and 51 yards in the final 93 seconds to save his team’s season, but on Sunday, Crosby’s missed 41-yard try with 5:35 left in the first quarter took the wind out of Green Bay’s sails before the team even had a chance to cast off.
On Atlanta’s opening possession, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan guided his team 80 yards on 13 plays and came away with a touchdown, setting the tone for the offensive onslaught to come. Immediately, however, Rodgers responded, completing consecutive passes of 27, 15 and 6 yards to put the Packers just outside the Falcons’ red zone. Ideally, Green Bay would have walked away with a game-tying score, setting the stage for a four-quarter shootout, but even a field goal would have helped establish some momentum with the majority of the game left to play.
Instead, Crosby pushed his kick wide right — just his second missed field goal all year from 40 to 49 yards — allowing Atlanta to use the good field position to set up another lengthy drive. Eventually, the Falcons took a 10-0 lead on a field goal of their own, and while it’s tough to point the finger at one missed first-quarter field goal as a turning point in a 23-point loss, it’s fair to wonder what it might have meant for Green Bay’s confidence had that kick gone through the uprights.
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Aaron Ripkowski's fumble
It’s often said that when it rains it pours, and that’s likely how many Packers fans felt when Green Bay fullback Aaron Ripkowski coughed the ball up deep in Atlanta territory to end the team’s second drive. To that point in his career, the second-year pro had never fumbled — he’d also only taken 40 handoffs entering the game — and if there was ever a bad time for his first, that was definitely it.
When Falcons cornerback Jalen Collins recovered the loose ball in his own end zone for a touchback, it completely changed the complexion of the contest. After the takeaway, Atlanta responded with yet another 80-yard touchdown drive and all of the sudden Green Bay found itself in a 17-0 hole in a game that should have been a 10-10 tie.
And though there have been bigger comebacks in conference championship games — see: Indianapolis over New England 10 years ago this week — expecting Rodgers to rally his team out of a three-possession hole on the road against one of the most prolific offenses in league history was basically asking him to do the impossible. For all intents and purposes, the game was over as soon as Green Bay failed to score on its second possession, and the blame for that can only be placed on Ripkowski.
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Green Bay’s defense couldn’t hang
Look, no one expected the Packers to roll into Atlanta and totally shut down the Falcons’ offense -- because nobody shuts down the Falcons’ offense. But Green Bay barely put up a fight.
The Packers looked woefully overmatched virtually from the beginning, and when the final whistle mercifully blew, Mike McCarthy’s crew had allowed 493 yards of offense, the team’s second-worst showing in a game all year. (The only opponent to gain more was Washington in Week 11, in what was the fourth consecutive loss and the fifth in six games for the Packers at the time.)
Further, the Packers forced no turnovers of their own for the first time since that loss to the Redskins (they’d racked up 18 takeaways in their last eight games coming in). And while it played capable football in fits and starts, Green Bay needed an exceptional defensive effort to pull off the upset, and there was little Rodgers could do to save his team when that unit barely bothered to put up resistance while he was on the sideline.
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Rodgers’ receivers did him no favors
If there was ever a time for the Packers to state definitively that they weren’t dead yet, it was the opening drive of the second half. At the time, Green Bay was down 24-0 and was in desperate need of something positive that might get the ball rolling on a comeback.
Instead, the Packers went three-and-out in 18 seconds, the possession grinding to a halt thanks to two separate drops by tight end Jared Cook — the hero of last week’s win against the Cowboys.
It’s unfair to zoom in on Cook, alone, though. He was joined on the drop train by Jordy Nelson and Christine Michael, among others. It was a startling departure from the way Green Bay usually plays — the Packers had just 15 drops the entire regular season — and while Rodgers wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t his fault his reliable receivers seemed to collectively forget how their hands work.
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The Falcons were simply unbeatable
Sometimes in the NFL a team runs into an opponent that simply isn’t going to lose, and more than anything that’s what happened to Green Bay on Sunday. Though the Packers had been riding their own impressive wave after a 4-6 start, the Falcons were coming in piping hot as well, and when Atlanta plays like it did in this game, there’s not a team in the NFL that’s going to take it down.
That doesn’t necessarily excuse the individual miscues that made beating an unbeatable opponent even more impossible, but this one was the Falcons’ from the opening snap. Atlanta didn’t play a perfect game, but it was close — impressively so on the defensive side of the ball, where the Falcons have only recently become competent — and there’s a strong case to be made that Rodgers, even at his best, wouldn’t have made a measurable difference against the Falcons’ churning buzzsaw.