Don’t even mention a third straight winning season to the Atlanta Falcons.
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Their goals are so much bigger than that.
The Falcons stayed atop the NFC when Matt Bryant kicked a 47-yard field goal with 9 seconds remaining Sunday for a 20-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers, one of the teams trying to chase down Atlanta in the conference standings.
Make no mistake. The Falcons (9-2) were very much aware of the possible ramifications this game might have beyond the regular season.
”I have no plans of going to Lambeau Field in January,” Atlanta receiver Roddy White said. ”I plan on staying right here and sleeping in my own bed in the playoffs.”
The Falcons have won five in a row for their longest streak since the 1998 season, when the team reached its only Super Bowl. Also assured is a third consecutive winning record – not too shabby, considering the franchise had never even had two in a row before this run.
Yet that’s just an afterthought for these guys, who have won six straight games decided by a touchdown or less after losing the opener to Pittsburgh in overtime.
”It’s great to get a winning season,” coach Mike Smith said. ”But the expectations and goals we talk about are a lot higher than that.”
Bryant had to make his winning kick twice.
The Packers called a timeout just before he knocked his first attempt right down the middle. No problem. The 35-year-old had already made two game-winning kicks this season, and No. 3 had plenty of distance as it hooked slightly but stayed several feet inside the left upright.
”Pressure is what you feel when you’re not prepared,” Bryant said. ”I’ve been preparing for that since I was 6 years old. Was there a little bit of pressure? Yeah. But I was prepared.”
His do-over capped a game between playoff contenders that lived up to all the hype: a bruising defensive struggle filled with huge fourth-down plays and one very important kickoff return by Eric Weems.
After Aaron Rodgers threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson with 56 seconds remaining to tie the game for Green Bay (7-4), Weems broke loose up the middle and was dragged down by Matt Wilhelm with a flagrant facemask tackle. The Falcons took over at the Green Bay 49, Matt Ryan completed four straight short passes and Bryant made the winning kick.
The Falcons weren’t concerned after Green Bay scored, especially with Ryan at quarterback. He completed 24 of 28 for 198 yards, including a 4-yarder to Tony Gonzalez for Atlanta’s first TD.
”We’ve got Matty Ice,” White said. ”Ice cold. He just keeps moving the sticks.”
Green Bay thought it had forced overtime when Rodgers directed a 16-play, 90-yard drive for the tying score. He improvised two huge plays on fourth down, beginning with a scrambling, backhanded flip of a pass to James Jones for an 18-yard gain on fourth-and-1 at the 21.
John Abraham sacked Rodgers for a 2-yard loss and a false start on Bryan Bulaga left the Packers with another fourth down from the 10. With Falcons owner Arthur Blank waving the crowd into an uproar on the sideline, the home team rushed only two players and dropped everyone else into coverage.
Rodgers had all the time he wanted, finally sliding to his left and rifling a pass to Nelson in the back corner of the end zone. He managed to get both feet down just before being shoved out of bounds by Thomas DeCoud.
”You go down and score a touchdown, and you’re thinking overtime,” said Rodgers, who passed for 344 yards, led the team in rushing with 51 yards but had a huge fumble at the goal line midway through the second quarter. ”Tying the game was pretty special.”
Weems quickly brought the crowd of more than 68,000 back to its feet. He took the kickoff 4 yards deep in the end zone, found a seam up the middle and looked as if he might break it all the way. Wilhelm stopped that by yanking at Weems’ facemask. Of course, the 15-yard personal foul penalty pushed the Falcons onto the Green Bay side of the field.
”The penalties were unacceptable,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. ”You can’t have them.”
Rodgers tied the game at 10 with a 1-yard run in the third quarter, but all he could think about was that fumble trying to score from the same distance in the first half. On fourth-and-goal, he lowered his head in an attempt to sneak it over, but the ball popped loose in the end zone. Mike Peterson fell on it to end Green Bay’s streak of 15 quarters without a turnover, its longest since 1963.
”That’s what lost the game,” Rodgers said. ”It’s discouraging not to win a game we should have won.”
Michael Turner, who rushed for 110 yards, put the Falcons ahead 17-10 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. On yet another huge fourth-and-goal play, this one from inside the 1, Turner bounced outside and went in standing up.
The Packers gave up more points than they had in the past three weeks combined, having surrendered only 10 in wins over the New York Jets, Dallas and Minnesota. Green Bay had a four-game winning streak overall, good enough for a tie with Chicago for the NFC North lead. The Bears hosted Philadelphia in a late-afternoon game.
NOTES: Green Bay lost CB Pat Lee in the first quarter with an ankle problem, and TE Spencer Havner hurt a hamstring in the third. … Falcons RB Jason Snelling also sustained a hamstring injury and didn’t play in the final period. … LB Stephen Nicholas started for Atlanta ahead of first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon. … The Falcons improved to 19-1 at home with Ryan starting at quarterback.