Here we go again.
That’s what they should’ve been thinking, right? That’s what any normal, reasonable person, who’d endured what they’d endured the last five weeks, who’d performed the way they’d performed, would have been thinking, right?
During the month of November, the Green Bay Packers hadn’t won a football game without their star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. And now, facing an equally downtrodden team in the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, this.
In addition to their own failings, mistakes and poor play, now they had bizarre fluke plays going against them, too.
With 32 seconds left in the first half, the Packers offense was on the move. It was first-and-10 at the Falcons’ 35-yard line when quarterback Matt Flynn dumped the ball over the middle to fullback John Kuhn. The ball was deflected by defensive tackle Peria Jerry, changing its flight path. The carom flew past Kuhn and, seemingly, harmlessly, to the turf.
It never hit the ground, of course. No, it hit linebacker Paul Worrilow’s right foot and bounced right into fellow linebacker Sean Weatherspoon’s mitts. He took off running, and while almost everyone else was trying to figure out what had happened, Weatherspoon was en route to a 71-yard touchdown.
Suddenly down 11 points, with a portion of the Lambeau Field crowd of 77,550 booing them off the field, if there was ever a time for the Packers to quit, this was it.
“Oh yeah, absolutely. After the past four, five weeks, it’s something we might have done,” veteran guard Josh Sitton admitted. “We haven’t been overcoming adversity real well during this run.”
Until Sunday. Until this 22-21 victory. Until Flynn and the offense atoned for a putrid Thanksgiving Day performance. Until the defense, after five weeks of not being able to return the favor for all those times the offense had bailed them out, delivered.
“It was like, ‘You know what? We’ve got to come out, keep fighting.’ You can’t let those fluke plays deter you,” said Packers outside linebacker Mike Neal, whose strip-sack of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan set up Flynn’s go-ahead touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless with 12 minutes left in the game.
“Obviously, we were playing good up until that point, but there were a couple of fluke plays that went their way. But if you keep playing, the situation can turn around.”
Perhaps that will happen with the Packers (6-6-1) and their promising-turned-disappointing season will go somewhere after all. With the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions’ loss in much snowier Philadelphia, the Packers are a half-game back of the Lions (7-6) with three games to play. Chicago (6-6) is in the mix as well, set to face Dallas at Soldier Field on Monday Night Football.
“You talk about some of the tough losses we’ve had, you talk about in the game the fluky play we had, but actually overcoming that shows the fans and the rest of the NFL that we’re not giving up,” Kuhn said. “We’re going to be here every game, we’re going to fight to the last whistle and until the game’s over. We know we have to finish with some more victories to give ourselves a chance, but the first one is a big one.”
No one knows what the future holds. Rodgers’ still-healing left collarbone may not allow him to play next week. These guys may revert to their recently inept form next Sunday at Dallas, and undo all the warm, fuzzy feelings they were basking in in the snow. Their playoff hopes may not have been revitalized but simply gotten a reprieve.
But for one day, after so many days of failure, they found a way. They overcame the adversity that had beaten them down for weeks, and now they have hope.
Not a lot of hope, mind you. They still have their work cut out for themselves – winning out, with or without Rodgers, won’t be easy – but they still have plenty to play for after what coach Mike McCarthy called a “character win” that was desperately needed.
“We always talk about not taking wins for granted around here because we’ve been so successful over the last three, four years, winning so many games. But it’s true,” veteran inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “I think when you win a lot, there’s no bad wins, but there's wins where you’re like, ‘Ah, man, we missed a lot of things. Wish we would’ve done this, wish we would’ve done that.’ And then when you go on a streak and you don’t win, it feels that much better to do it.
“This is great that we won, but we didn’t win the Super Bowl today. We won one game, and we’re still alive a little bit. So we have to make sure we take advantage of it.”
They certainly took advantage Sunday. In pitching a second-half shutout, the defense ended the Falcons’ possessions with a pair of three-and-out punts, a fumble, a missed field goal, a failed fourth-down attempt and an interception. The last two game courtesy of veteran cornerback Jarrett Bush, who got just enough of Matt Ryan’s fourth-down pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez to break it up, and then sealed the victory with his biggest interception since Super Bowl XLV.
“That’s what we’re used to, that’s what we want to keep happening,” Bush said. “We’ve got to keep that snowball rolling and gain our confidence back. That’s all we can do – just keep building that momentum and hitting the ground running. I think that’s all we needed, just a little spark.”
Offensively, Flynn (24 of 32, 258 yards, one touchdown, one interception, five sacks, 95.6 rating) directed five scoring drives, including a 90-yard, 18-play masterpiece to open the game with a tone-setting touchdown and the go-ahead score after Neal’s fumble was recovered by Johnny Jolly at the Atlanta 21.
“We’re excited that this wasn’t an offensive win, or a defensive win, or a special teams win. This was a complete team win,” said Flynn, who rallied the Packers from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit in a 26-26 tie with Minnesota that won him the temporary starting job over Scott Tolzien.
“I think that’s [why] we saw the smiles coming off the field and in the locker room, and I think that’s what we’re most excited about. When we had to have a stop, we got the stops. When we had to have a score, we got the scores. It’s one of those things that as a team we feel really good about.”
But it all came down to how they responded to Weatherspoon’s touchdown.
“I really liked the energy with our players at halftime. I wanted to see how they’d respond, if they came in and if they were really affected by that (interception),” McCarthy said. “It definitely has a chance to take some air out of your balloon. But our guys didn't blink and we played our best football in the second half. As a coach, that's what you look for in your football team.”