ATLANTA – Aaron Rodgers(notes) was walking toward a Georgia Dome exit late Sunday afternoon when he stopped to stare at a small television screen outside the home team's locker room. Speaking from a podium in a nearby interview room – all of 20 feet from where Rodgers stood, though separated by a thick wall – Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) projected an image of poise, style and confidence.
"He looks kinda like me, doesn't he?" Rodgers said of his young rival. "He's a great player, man. What was he today, 24 out of 28? Are you kidding me?"
Ryan's performance in Atlanta's 20-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers, one which gave the home team some separation in its quest for conference supremacy, was no joke. And Rodgers' effort in a taut game between NFC contenders was simply stone-cold sadistic. In a prolific pitcher's duel between two passers who may meet again this January – and, quite likely, in compelling classics to come – the 68,204 fans in attendance saw a battle between golden right arms capable of carrying a team.
Make no mistake, however: The Falcons (9-2) and Packers (7-4) are not equals. Even before Matt Bryant's(notes) decisive 47-yard field goal went sailing through the uprights with nine seconds remaining, it was clear that Atlanta is a more complete outfit than the one from Titletown.
The main difference? The Falcons can run the ball, with the relentless, physical Michael Turner(notes) bulling his way to 110 yards on 23 carries Sunday, giving Ryan the luxury of running a multi-faced attack.
The Packers, meanwhile, are more imbalanced than Kim Jong-il. With halfback Brandon Jackson(notes) gaining just 26 yards on 10 carries (he had minus-three yards on six carries through three quarters), Green Bay had no choice but to put its fate in Rodgers' hands – and, by necessity, his feet, too.
Doing his best impersonation of "The Longest Yard's" Paul Crewe, Rodgers ran for 51 yards on 12 carries, including a one-yard touchdown, often ducking just under the aggressive advances of frustrated defenders. Said Turner, "It seemed like he had a 100-yard rushing day."
As a passer, Rodgers pretty much had to be perfect for his team to have a chance, and he was remarkably close to pulling it off. In his third year as a starter (after three years as Brett Favre's(notes) frustrated understudy), Rodgers has taken his game to an elite level. On Sunday he completed 26 of 35 passes for 344 yards, was sacked only once, and tied the game with 56 seconds remaining thanks to a pair of jaw-dropping, fourth-down conversions, including a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson(notes) in the left corner of the end zone.
"The guy played great," Ryan said after the game, shaking his head as he dressed at his locker. "What else can you say?"
Well, if you're Rodgers, and your team just had its four-game winning streak halted and by day's end would fall a game behind the Chicago Bears in the race for the NFC North title, you can say plenty, starting with the obvious: "It's frustrating that we had 26 yards rushing other than myself. We've got to do a better job, especially at this point in the season. It's tough to throw the ball when you can't feel your hands in the wintertime."
Let's stop for a moment and acknowledge that this isn't exactly a stunning development. The Pack lost their starting halfback, Ryan Grant(notes), to a season-ending ankle injury in the second quarter of its opening game, a 27-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Aggressively exploring a trade for Bills halfback Marshawn Lynch(notes), Rodgers' former teammate at Cal, seemed like a reasonable idea, and I wasn't the only one who suggested it. "Bring him on," Rodgers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time.
This is not to say that Lynch was the only viable solution to the Packers' search for a productive replacement for Grant. However, he was the most logical player to pursue, and by all accounts Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson didn't make a very enticing offer to his Buffalo counterpart, Buddy Nix, who eventually traded the hard-running yet struggling halfback to the Seahawks for a fourth-round draft pick in 2011 and a conditional (fifth- or sixth-round) selection in 2012. Thompson, meanwhile, stood pat with his underwhelming incumbents, Jackson and John Kuhn(notes).
That means the Packers, a team with a suffocating defense led by perhaps the NFL's most dynamic playmaker (linebacker Clay Matthews(notes)) that shut out the New York Jets four weeks ago – and whose quarterback is an emerging star playing at an MVP-caliber level – is rolling into December with a glaring weakness that likely can't be overcome.
"We put in the five-wideout package extensively this week, more than we had all year," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said as he walked to the team bus after Sunday's game. "But we need to run it better than that."
Was Rodgers angry that the Lynch deal didn't happen? "Not really," he said, "' 'cause I like our guys. You always look forward to adding a great player, though."
Translation: I'm not going to rip my boss or disrespect my teammates, but yeah, I was less than thrilled.
Rodgers did make one big mistake, though it, too, can be directly traced to the Pack's most conspicuous deficiency. Midway through the second quarter, with the score tied at 3, Green Bay had first-and-goal at the 2, and McCarthy showed a clear lack of faith in his running game. After a Rodgers incompletion, the quarterback tried to sneak across the goal line out of a spread formation but was stopped a yard short. He tried another sneak on third down and was hit by linebacker Curtis Lofton(notes), who forced a fumble that teammate Mike Peterson(notes) recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
It was Rodgers' first fumble of the season and the Pack's first turnover since the Oct. 24 victory over the Minnesota Vikings that started their winning streak. The Falcons, meanwhile, played a game that was virtually mistake-free, which is becoming a distinguishing characteristic of third-year coach Mike Smith's teams.
Credit a steady defensive effort that made the Packers work for their first downs and an offense that managed to neutralize Matthews, limiting him to three very quiet tackles and zero big plays.
"We had a game plan for him coming in," said Roddy White(notes), the Falcons' star wideout. "We weren't just going to let him get off on us. We were going to chip him with backs on passing downs and go max protect, and run right at him. We made him work all day, and we tired him out. I kept asking him, 'Where you at, man? I ain't heard your name.' He said, 'You ain't doing nothing, either.' "
Matthews had a point – White, the object of constant attention from the Packers' defense, had a quiet five receptions for 49 yards. To Ryan's credit, rather than forcing the ball to his All-Pro target, he turned elsewhere, with future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) (six receptions, 51 yards, one TD) the biggest beneficiary. The result was that his 24 completions were spread to nine receivers, with none traveling longer than 21 yards. It was a mature, efficient performance, the kind his teammates have come to expect.
"He's always the same," the 34-year-old Gonzalez said of the third-year quarterback. "Matt's just getting started, as far as I'm concerned. He's got a good group around him; those guys are going to be good for a long time. I just hope I can stick around for awhile longer to enjoy it."
Turner has rushed for at least 100 yards in 6 games this season.
(John Bazemore/AP Photo)
On Sunday, Rodgers made sure the Packers had a chance for a fulfilling finish, driving them 90 yards in 16 plays to tie the score at 17 with 56 seconds to go. As impressive as his touchdown pass to Nelson was – Rodgers bought time in the pocket, then drifted to his left before delivering his pass to the wideout (covered tightly by safety Thomas DeCoud(notes)) at the last possible moment – it wasn't the drive's most spectacular play.
That came on fourth-and-1 from the Falcons' 21, when Rodgers spun around in the pocket, somehow avoided several defenders and threw a wicked, improvised push-pass to wideout James Jones(notes), who raced into the secondary for an 18-yard gain. It was, dare we say, a pretty good Favre impersonation. "No comment," said Rodgers, who graded out his performance as "a C-plus. And it takes an A effort to beat these guys here."
He may be right, given that Ryan, aka Matty Ice, is 19-1 at home in his short career. When Mason Crosby's(notes) tying extra point went through the uprights with 56 ticks remaining, DeCoud nodded his head confidently. "We all knew what was going to happen when Ice got the ball," the safety said.
It helped that Eric Weems(notes) raced through the Pack's coverage team on the ensuing kickoff, with Green Bay's Matt Wilhelm(notes) making a desperation facemask tackle that gave Atlanta, after a 15-yard penalty, possession at the Packers' 49-yard line. After four consecutive short completions and a smart throwaway on third-and-3 – "If it's there, I throw it; if it's not, I put it in the bleachers," Ryan said – the quarterback put Bryant in position to nail his 12h career game-winner in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Bryant came through, and the Falcons retained their one-game lead over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South with five to go. They have a very viable path to home-field advantage in the playoffs. "It's another step," Ryan said. "We're a little bit closer to where we need to be."
If they play like they did on Sunday, defeating a stellar quarterback at the height of his powers, they could end up at Cowboys Stadium this February in Super Bowl XLV – no kidding.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• If anyone out there still doubts that the San Diego Chargers are making their annual late-season run, he/she might want to talk to Peyton Manning(notes). After San Diego went into Indy on Sunday night and picked off the four-time MVP four times, returning two for touchdowns in a 36-14 rout of the Colts, it's tough not to look at the Chargers' 6-5 record and envision an 11-5 finish. San Diego hosts the Raiders (5-6) and Chiefs (7-4) – AFC West foes to which it lost earlier in the season – the next two Sundays and can take control of the division with a pair of victories.
• And yet, don't sleep on the Chiefs, whose remaining foes (other than the Chargers) all have losing records, and who I expect to put up a serious fight to the finish. They came through Sunday with a big-time road victory over the Seahawks (5-6), a 42-24 thrashing in which wideout Dwayne Bowe(notes) – a constant headache for newly hired coach Todd Haley a season ago – caught 13 passes for 170 yards and three touchdowns, reaching the end zone for the seventh consecutive game. "Big step for my team," Haley wrote via text after the game. "Big step for [quarterback Matt] Cassel, Bowe and young defensive players like [Javier] Arenas, [Kendrick] Lewis and [Jovan] Belcher."
• I've made it clear that I believe Vikings owner Zygi Wilf waited too long to fire Brad Childress and replace him with Leslie Frazier, and I stand by that sentiment following Frazier's first game as interim coach, a 17-13 road victory over the Redskins. I heard from four Minnesota players after the game, and each one said there was an appreciable difference in the team's preparation and game-day demeanor under the new coach. "He just made sure we stayed focused on the task at hand and didn't worry about the past," defensive end Jared Allen(notes) said. "Most of all we were having fun. It's easier to do when you have nothing to lose." Added tight end Visanthe Shiancoe(notes): "You could feel the extra effort. We have work to do but it's very refreshing. Can't dwell on the past … can just focus on the future. We don't have eyes in the back of our heads." A third player said there was a "100 percent different vibe on the sideline … no panic at all. Too bad the Wilfs waited two weeks too long." Amen.
• Four weeks ago, the Bears couldn't protect their franchise quarterback, Jay Cutler(notes), and looked like a 4-3 team headed for disaster. Now Chicago (8-3) is a game behind the Falcons for the NFC's best record after a 31-26 victory over the Eagles in which Cutler threw four touchdown passes. The most amazing TD throw, however, originated from the left hand of Philly quarterback Michael Vick(notes), who for my money remains the league's leading MVP candidate. With 1:54 left, on fourth-and-9 from the Bears' 30, Vick, after a cold pump-fake, somehow threaded a pass over the middle that floated over the outstretched arms of defenders Brian Urlacher(notes) and D.J. Moore(notes), just out of descending defensive back Chris Harris'(notes) reach (with cornerback Danieal Manning(notes) also closing in) and into the waiting hands of tight end Brent Celek(notes) in the front of the end zone. "I lost it at the end for a second," Celek told me later. "I had a lot of texts about it so it must have been pretty cool." Way cool.
• Thanks to Bills receiver Stevie Johnson's unfathomable dropped touchdown pass in overtime, the Steelers escaped with a 19-16 victory over Buffalo and ensured that next Sunday night's showdown with the Ravens in Baltimore would feature a pair of 8-3 teams fighting for the inside track to the AFC North title. And fighting, period. "Let's get it," Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs(notes) wrote (via text) after his team's 17-10 victory over the Bucs. "Championship football." Pittsburgh wideout Hines Ward(notes), mindful that he is perhaps the least popular man in Baltimore, is also fired up: "I love playing there. Us against the world." The only thing I'd rather do than watch this slugfest from the press box is to somehow finagle a sideline pass.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That my alma mater had the gall to suspend defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi for Saturday's season-ending defeat to Washington as punishment for his alleged masterminding of a player's feigned injury during a 15-13 loss to Oregon earlier this month. First of all, as someone who has seen pro and college coaches employ similar tactics for decades – including several of the Ducks' other Pac-10 opponents earlier this season – I'm a bit underwhelmed by Cal's sin. No, I'm not justifying it, nor am I proud of it, but on the spectrum of regrettable behavior in the corrupt world of big-time collegiate athletics, I personally don't think it's a cause for self-inflicted bloodletting. More important, the notion that Lupoi, a loyal ex-Cal player who repeatedly and valiantly fought through injuries during his career, would somehow go rogue and perpetrate such a strategy on his own is something I find laughable. In addition to being a persuasive representative of the program (Rivals.com named him its national recruiter of the yearlast February), Lupoi is a stand-up guy whose ex-teammates (like Rodgers and DeCoud, to whom I spoke on Sunday) and current colleagues vouch for his integrity. I have a very, very hard time believing he is guilty of masterminding anything, and if so the university should be ashamed for making him the fall guy.
2. Raiders coach Tom Cable's decision to start Bruce Gradkowski(notes) ahead of Jason Campbell(notes) in Sunday's 33-17 defeat to the Dolphins at the Oakland Coliseum. Let's do the math: Owner Al Davis is known to prefer Campbell, whom he acquired in a draft-day trade with the Washington Redskins, and who had quarterbacked the Raiders to three victories in their previous four games. Davis fired his previous coach, Lane Kiffin, for cause, stiffing him out of the balance of his deal – and recently prevailing via arbitration after Kiffin filed a grievance attempting to recover the money (a reported $2.6 million). In Cable's 39 games as coach, Oakland has scored one offensive touchdown or fewer 21 times, including Sunday against Miami. And Davis is extremely high on first-year offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who has made a perceptible impact after assuming the bulk of Cable's play-calling duties. I can see a coach deciding to be his own man and defying Davis in certain circumstances, but Cable seems to have a highly inflated sense of his own power, or very little fear of losing his job – or both. Don't be stunned if he's gone before the end of the season.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
As a Bill Belichick wannabe who presides over the Denver Broncos' universe like a hyper-paranoid dictator, Josh McDaniels is viewed as somewhat of a circus act in NFL circles – and never more so than in the last two days, when he tried to play the football world like chumps in the wake of an embarrassing cheating scandal that came to light Saturday morning. First, McDaniels portrayed himself as the emblem of integrity in claiming that since-dismissed video coordinator Steve Scarnecchia filmed a portion of the San Francisco 49ers' walkthrough before the two teams' meeting at Wembley Stadium late last month, and that the coach summarily refused to view the illicit tape before Denver's 24-16 defeat. I talked to several other NFL head coaches, and numerous front-office executives, over the past few days, and the number of them who believe that McDaniels neither ordered the filming nor viewed it is the same as John Blutarsky's grade-point-average in "Animal House": 0.0. The fact that Scarnecchia had apparently been involved in the Patriots' Spygate scandal before being hired by McDaniels made the coach's claims even more dubious. Worst of all was McDaniels' reaction after being fined $50,000 by the NFL for failing to report the violation (with owner Pat Bowlen receiving a fine of the same amount). Instead of accepting the punishment with humility and being thankful that his employers stood by him publicly, at least for now, McDaniels did what he always does: Tried to bully everyone around him into submission. It's one thing when Belichick, one of the greatest coaches of his era, flexes his power internally; when a 34-year-old coach who (after Sunday's 36-33 home defeat to the St. Louis Rams) has lost 16 of his past 21 games is doing a lame Tony Soprano impression, it's a little tough to stomach. That didn't stop McDaniels, according to a report by Fox's Jay Glazer, from telling his assistants at a meeting informing them of the impending cheating revelations on Friday morning, "If this gets out, there are jobs on the line."
Smooth move, Josh, and guess what – someone blabbed to Glazer, potential consequences be damned. You'll be happy to know that I, too, talked to someone in the organization Sunday night who said, "If he treated people right, everybody'd just keep their mouths shut. But when you treat people like a piece of [expletive], this is what happens." I'm sure that when McDaniels reads this – and trust me, he will – his first reaction will be, "Who said this?" And that would the wrong reaction. Instead, McDaniels should ask, "How has this cheating episode affected the people I work with, many of whom will be unfairly associated with this dishonorable behavior? And how can I make it up to them as we try to band together as a staff and get our team to perform well enough over the final five games that we might somehow remain employed past 2010?" Realistically, however, I don't think McDaniels cares about the professional fate of anyone but himself. Further evidence of this can be found in Glazer's report that McDaniels told his assistants the Patriots' taping practices were far worse than the incident for which the Broncos got caught, allegedly saying that what went down in New England "was practiced … was coached … was worked on." I wish McDaniels the best of luck explaining that apparent sellout move and utter lack of gratitude to Belichick, his mentor, and to his former Patriots colleagues and players. And to Bowlen and chief operating officer Joe Ellis – and everyone else in the Denver organization who has been negatively impacted by this embarrassment – I extend my deepest sympathies. There are jobs on the line, all right, and if McDaniels' position isn't one of them, the Broncos are pro football's most gullible organization.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"I gotta see it"
– Text Sunday night from Vick, before his flight home to Philadelphia, referring to that late TD pass to Celek.
"Wish I was playing"
– Text Sunday evening from injured Packers middle linebacker Nick Barnett(notes), he of the "Super Bowl or Die" motto, who is out for the season with a wrist injury.
"That's awesome man. I hope iced tea is code word for coors light."
– Text Tuesday afternoon from Carson Palmer, after I informed him that massive liquid consumption at lunch would necessitate the use of his brother Jordan's "RunPee" app while taking my daughter to see the latest Harry Potter flick.