GREEN BAY, Wis. -- After a snowy Sunday, the Green Bay Packers are right back in the playoff race.
The Packers, who were 0-4-1 since All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers sustained a broken collarbone, rallied from a 21-10 halftime deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 22-21 at Lambeau Field. With the Detroit Lions (7-6) losing in a snowstorm at Philadelphia, the NFC North race looks like a fight to the finish with Green Bay (6-6-1) back in the mix, Rodgers itching to return and Chicago (6-6) hosting Dallas on Monday.
The Packers' maligned defense, which was destroyed for 561 yards in a 40-10 loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving, turned the tide and clinched the game.
Jarrett Bush, normally a special-teams standout, was elevated to the dime defensive back against the Falcons. He broke up a fourth-down pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez on Atlanta's second-to-last possession, then intercepted a pass in the final seconds to clinch the game.
"When you play a great player like Tony Gonzalez, it's always a challenge," Bush said. "I did my due diligence studying him and knowing what he likes to do route-wise and scheme-wise and it paid huge dividends today. It was a huge game for us and I think it was something that we needed to get the confidence back, get the swagger back."
Green Bay forced consecutive three-and-out punts to set up two Mason Crosby field goals that pulled the Packers within 21-16. Then, on the second play of the fourth quarter, outside linebacker Mike Neal beat right tackle Jeremy Trueblood for a sack and stripped the ball from quarterback Matt Ryan. Defensive tackle Johnny Jolly recovered, setting up the Packers at Atlanta's 21, where Matt Flynn completed a back-shoulder pass to tight end Andrew Quarless against safety Zeke Motta for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
The two-point try failed, but Green Bay led 22-21 with 12:01 to play.
Matt Bryant's 52-yard field goal came up short on Atlanta's next possession, but the Falcons forced a key three-and-out, giving Ryan the ball at his 17-yard line with 4:38 to play. The Falcons reached the Packers' 38 when Green Bay's defense stiffened to force a fourth-and-5 from the 33. Due to the weather and the results of Bryant's last kick, a 51-yard field goal was out of the question. After a timeout, Ryan's pass to Gonzalez was broken up by Bush with 1:55 remaining.
"I feel like I need to make a better throw," Ryan said. "It was good coverage and they defended it well, but I feel like I need to put it in a better spot for him to be able to make a play on it."
When Atlanta got the ball back, their last-gasp hopes were dashed when Ryan threw into double-coverage and was intercepted.
Suddenly, the Packers are right back in the thick of the race. They play at Dallas next week, host Pittsburgh and finish at Chicago.
What the Packers said
"Last Thursday, (a 40-10 loss at Detroit) was a bad day at the office. That's the only way to look at it. You don't really go back and look at the film and try to really learn from that one. We got our butts kicked all over the field, and that's one of those games that you just forget about and move on and don't think about it. That's a tribute to this team, especially this offense, to come out here and play like they did today." -- Quarterback Matt Flynn.
"Coming off that first half, I'm sure from the outside looking in that it wasn't looking great, especially for the momentum of this game. What a crazy play to kind of end the half with them scoring like that, so we knew as a defense if we didn't get some stops, we weren't going to win that game. It was definitely good. I think we came in and got three-and-out the first series, then our offense just went to work. It was a fun game to be a part of." -- Linebacker A.J. Hawk.
What the Falcons said
"Football is a 60-minute game and I felt like we played very well in the first half of the ball game and we didn't play very good in the second half. We didn't score any points, and you have to put points on the board when you have the opportunity and we did not do that." -- Coach Mike Smith.
"It is a game that you have to win. When I came back into the locker room (at halftime), I told everybody that we needed another score to win this game. We knew that they were going to make a run because there always are ebbs and flows in games. We knew at some point they would make a run that we would need to counter and get us a drive together. Unfortunately, we did not do that." -- Wide receiver Roddy White.
What we learned about the Packers
1. For one week, at least, maybe the Packers' defense isn't so bad. Corresponding with quarterback Aaron Rodgers' injury, the defense had allowed at least 415 yards in four of the past five games, including 561 in a 40-10 loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving. Moreover, the Packers allowed more than 200 rushing yards in three of the past four games after ranking as high as third in the league against the run. Against the Falcons, the Packers pitched a second-half shutout and allowed just 285 yards, including 83 on the ground.
2. The fact that the Packers have more than just a pulse in the NFL North race is amazing, considering they were 0-4-1 since Aaron Rodgers sustained a broken collarbone against Chicago before Sunday's victory. But Green Bay's win, combined with Detroit's loss at Philadelphia, has the Packers within a half-game of the Lions. If Rodgers is cleared to play at Dallas next Sunday, the Packers might win the division, after all.
What we learned about the Falcons
1. The Falcons have suffered without wide receiver Julio Jones, and that was evident against the Packers. Atlanta led 21-10 but just couldn't deliver the knockout punch, in part because it lacked any sort of downfield passing game. With seven of Atlanta's 21 points coming courtesy of the defense, the Falcons' offense has failed to score more than 14 points in five of the past seven games.
2. The Falcons' coaches need to pay closer attention to the pregame workouts. Before the game, kicker Matt Bryant was woefully short on a couple of 50-yard attempts to the north end zone. In the fourth quarter, Falcons coach Mike Smith sent out Bryant for a 52-yard field goal to the north end, which predictably fell well short. The Falcons would have been better served counting on punter Matt Bosher to punt the Packers into a hole in hopes of winning a field-position battle.