One starting quarterback in Saturday night’s NFC second-round playoff game was voted to the Pro Bowl while the other was snubbed.
Can we have a recount?
Not that it should matter much to Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. Based on the first two rounds of the postseason, he wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Hawaii anyway. That’s because the Packers are Super Bowl-bound unless the opposition finds a way to stop the NFL’s hottest passer or keeps pace on the scoreboard.
Matt Ryan and the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons could do neither in a 48-21 home loss to the Packers.
What was a deadlocked contest late in the second quarter quickly disintegrated into a blowout. Rodgers was nearly perfect while throwing for three touchdowns and running for a fourth that gave Green Bay a commanding 28-point lead. Ryan threw two costly interceptions just before halftime and couldn’t get Atlanta’s offense in gear before it was too late.
"We were in a rhythm early moving the ball pretty effectively. Then we lost it," Ryan said.
As a result, the Falcons became the third No. 1 seed in the past four seasons to lose its first playoff game. The sixth-seeded Packers (12-6) are headed to the NFC Championship game against the winner of Sunday’s Seattle-Chicago contest.
"We’re a championship-caliber team," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We feel very good about who we are, the way we play and our brand of football. That’s what we’re sticking to."
As well they should.
Like in last Sunday’s first-round game against Philadelphia, Green Bay was involved in a rematch against a regular-season opponent. Rodgers had a 344-yard passing effort in Week 12 versus Atlanta, but Ryan’s last-minute heroics lifted the Falcons to a 20-17 victory. Ryan completed 24 of 28 passes in that game with only one second-half incompletion.
Remarkably, Rodgers was even sharper in the rematch. He completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and was 10-for-10 on third downs. Atlanta’s defense had no answers. When the Falcons blitzed, Rodgers adroitly sidestepped. Three- and four-man rushes didn’t produce enough pressure, allowing Rodgers to shred an overmatched secondary that desperately needs an offseason upgrade.
"We kind of did what we wanted to do," said Rodgers, who was lifted midway through the fourth quarter with the game well in hand. "We wanted to attack the middle of the field early. Once they started taking that away, work the routes outside.
"It was one of those nights that when things weren’t working and weren’t open I was able to move in the pocket, avoid some of those free guys and make some big plays."
The opposite goes for Ryan. He was met by a much sounder Packers defense than the one he faced in late November. The Michael Turner-led rushing attack — the key to Atlanta’s offensive success in a 13-3 regular season — was neutered when the Falcons fell behind by such a large margin early in the second half. The offensive line struggled against Green Bay’s diverse blitz packages.
That left no room for the errors Ryan made.
Packers cornerback Tramon Williams took full advantage, snuffing two Falcons drives inside Green Bay territory when the score was tied at 14-14. Williams first intercepted a Ryan lob in the end zone intended for wide receiver Michael Jenkins, who inexplicably slipped like he hit one of the ice patches that plagued the Atlanta region this past week. Even if he had stayed upright, Jenkins would have struggled to make the catch because Ryan’s throw had lots of air underneath it.
Rodgers converted the turnover into Green Bay’s third touchdown with far better execution of a fade pass. He lofted a picture-perfect 20-yard throw to wide receiver James Jones, who got inside position on cornerback Brent Grimes.
"I told the guys before the game I owed them one from that drop last week," said Jones, who dropped a sure touchdown pass in that 21-16 win at Philadelphia. "It was the least I could do."
Williams then gave another example of how much better Green Bay’s secondary was than a Falcons unit that saw nickel cornerback Christopher Owens regularly targeted while playing in place of the injured Brian Williams (knee). After a nine-yard Clay Matthews sack, the Falcons were on the cusp of field-goal range at the Packers’ 35-yard line with 10 seconds left before halftime. Ryan rolled to his right and threw on the run toward wide receiver Roddy White.
Big mistake. Williams darted in front of the pass, nimbly avoided a Ryan tackle attempt and zipped 70 yards for a touchdown that gave Green Bay a 28-14 lead.
"I played outside leverage a little bit and let the receiver get outside of me," said Williams, who has emerged as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks in the second half of the season. "Once he made the out cut, I broke underneath and made the play. The formation they were in I recognized."
The second half opened with more Packers dominance. Rodgers methodically led Green Bay downfield for another score, juking a Falcons linebacker on his way to a seven-yard touchdown run. By that point, a Falcons defense that had spent almost 17 of the previous 22 minutes on the field was sucking enough air to deflate the Georgia Dome.
"We knew if we were able to take that ball down and score, we would break their will a little bit," Rodgers said.
The Falcons were broken shortly thereafter. After a three-and-out by the Falcons offense — McCarthy successfully used a replay challenge to nullify a third-down Ryan completion — Rodgers was at it again. He ended this drive with a seven-yard touchdown pass to fullback John Kuhn. That gave Rodgers an NFL-record 10 touchdown passes in his first three career playoff games, dating to last season’s 51-45 overtime loss to Arizona.
"I don’t know who that team was," cornerback Dunta Robinson said of his Falcons afterward. "We haven’t shown that all season."
Few quarterbacks have ever shown as much skill in a postseason game as Rodgers. He finished with the fifth-highest completion percentage (86.1) of any quarterback in NFL playoff history with a minimum of 15 attempts.
Asked to rank this outing among his all-time best, Rodgers recalled when he completed 23 consecutive passes at the University of California and starred in the Insight Bowl. Rodgers, though, didn’t try to pretend that those efforts were as impressive as the clinic he conducted on a much larger stage.
"It was a special night," he said.
Rodgers, though, also had sympathy for the third-year Falcons quarterback whose effort was anything but special. Although he was 20-of-29 passing, Ryan was sacked five times and didn’t log a completion of more than 22 yards.
"I have a lot of respect for Matt," Rodgers said. "We’re friends off the field. I’m sure he’s disappointed, but he’s going to be in these types of games for the length of his career."
The bad part for Ryan? Rodgers and a young Packers roster probably will be, too.