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.
"We knew going into this that we needed to win this game for one and keep winning on after, but we also knew we needed some help from somewhere," Flynn said. "But we can't worry about that. We weren't scoreboard watching or anything like that. We needed to take care of our jobs and we need to parlay this win into getting ready and preparing well for Dallas."
The Falcons seemingly took control late in the first half with a remarkable pick-six.
With Green Bay driving late in the first half, Flynn's pass to fullback John Kuhn was deflected by defensive tackle Peria Jerry. The ball went over Kuhn's shoulder and bounced off linebacker Paul Worrilow's foot to linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon ran down the left sideline, broke offensive lineman T.J. Lang's tackle attempt near the 25-yard line and scored on a 71-yard return to give Atlanta a 21-10 halftime lead.
"We are just coached to finish," Weatherspoon said. "You always want to sell it. Even if it hits the ground, you still have to take that chance. It was a great play by Worrilow. I am not sure what happened to the ball before he kicked it. It was awesome. I thank Worrilow for the nick kick."
The Falcons spotted the Packers a 7-0 lead but came charging back. Ryan hit receiver Drew Davis for a 36-yard touchdown pass on a third-and-3 play in which Davis initially blocked Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. Davis beat safety Morgan Burnett, then broke safety M.D. Jennings' tackle attempt at about the 25.
On the first play of the ensuing possession, safety William Moore blitzed untouched off the Packers' left side for a blind-side sack of Flynn that forced a fumble. Ryan converted a third-and-9 with an 11-yard completion to Roddy White, and Ryan hit Gonzalez for a 1-yard touchdown on the next play after a great play-fake suckered Burnett.
NOTES: The Packers' opening touchdown drive of 18 plays, 90 yards and 9:07 was the team's longest of the season in terms of plays and time. ... Green Bay RB Eddie Lacy's 1-yard touchdown on that possession was his seventh of the season, breaking Samkon Gado's franchise rookie record. ... Falcons S Thomas DeCoud (concussion) and LB Sean Weatherspoon (shoulder) were injured on the first series of the game. Weatherspoon returned but DeCoud, a Pro Bowler in 2012, did not. ... TE Tony Gonzalez's second-quarter touchdown catch extended his streak to 208 consecutive games with at least one reception. Only Jerry Rice (274) and Gonzalez have caught a reception in 200 consecutive games. ... At halftime, the Packers honored Glory Years linebacker Dave Robinson, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. ... Green Bay K Mason Crosby's third-quarter field goal gave him 877 points, a record for a player in his first seven seasons. Mike Vanderjagt scored 874 points with the Colts.