GREEN BAY – Sunday was a different day for the Green Bay Packers in 2018.
How different in the 34-20 victory over the Falcons at Lambeau Field? Let’s count the ways.
First and foremost, there was rhythm and timing to the offense from the get-go. In answering Atlanta’s early touchdown, quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropped back to pass eight times on Green Bay’s first drive.
Including the play with a defensive pass interference penalty on the Falcons, Rodgers threw the ball on schedule seven of those eight times. He completed six for 62 yards and picked up another six yards on the DPI.
“That one felt great,” Rodgers said of the first possession. “It felt like we were in a great rhythm down the field.”
The Packers faced just one third down on that opening drive, but converted it. That began a 7-for-13 day on the money down, just the second time all season the offense hit 50 percent or better. The other was way back in Week 4 vs. Buffalo (11-of-19), and to put in perspective how big seven third-down conversions are, the Packers had eight total in the last three games combined (8-for-35, 23 percent).
“Our play speed was a little better, for whatever reason, but I wish I knew the answer, because I would have had it that way before,” interim head coach Joe Philbin said of the third-down offense. “We had some momentum, too, which always helps.”
So does a defensive score, which the Packers got for the first time in just over a calendar year, dating back to Week 13 of last season (Dean Lowry's fumble-return TD). Bashaud Breeland’s pick-six was the Packers’ first play of that variety since last October and was also the Packers’ first interception since Breeland’s four weeks ago vs. Miami.
But that’s not all that was different. There’s something to be said for the energy, particularly coming out of halftime, and especially coming off last week’s listless performance vs. Arizona.
On Sunday, that element may have gotten a boost when Rodgers took a big hit to the back late in the first half by Falcons cornerback Brian Poole at the end of a scramble-slide. Offensive linemen Lucas Patrick and Corey Linsley instantly came to Rodgers’ defense, which started a bit of a midfield melee that ended with offsetting penalties and the Packers in field-goal range.
Lambeau Field hosted a Week 14 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Atlanta Falcons on Dec. 9, 2018.
“I love it, I really do … I don’t think (the hit) was disrespectful at all, but I do love my guys coming in,” Rodgers said, recalling a similar reaction two years ago in Tennessee when he scrambled for a touchdown, was hit late in the end zone, and “the cavalry was coming quickly.” His teammates’ response from then is a video clip the two-time MVP QB actually saved on his phone he liked it so much.
“Yeah, I think there’s a lot of fight left in this squad. It means a lot as a leader for the guys to jump in and back you up.”
The emotions seemed to carry over to the second half, as the Packers came out of the locker room and drove for back-to-back touchdowns to put the game away. The 14 points in the first nine minutes of the second half were more than Green Bay had scored in 90 minutes of second halves over the last three weeks combined.
It didn’t hurt the Packers to have some luck, too, which had seemingly been in short supply for much of the season.
Whether the reference is to Falcons linebacker Deion Jones dropping what looked like a sure interception from Rodgers that would have ended his eventual record INT-free streak, or if it’s two Atlanta holding penalties wiping out big gains in the passing game for the Falcons, some things finally broke the Packers’ way after a couple of dubious replay reviews didn’t on the game’s opening drive.
Speaking of which, those produced the last difference on this day, a little humor. It’s much easier to laugh about things after a victory, of course, but Philbin couldn’t help being a little self-deprecating about spending his two replay challenges in the first minute and 23 seconds of the game.
Both reviews, of catches by Julio Jones, upheld the questionable receptions. Thankfully no other instances arose where Philbin needed a challenge, because he soon realized after losing the first challenge, burning his second and final one so early in the game was not the best of moves. But at least the end result meant he could laugh about it.
"I had enough big decisions to make during the course of the day, and I didn't want to make any more so I got that out of the way," Philbin said in his typical dead-pan delivery. "Plus the flag didn't fit very good in my pocket.
“It might have been wise to hold onto that other one. We’ll do some challenge education during the course of the week. It certainly looks like I need it.”
Just like the Packers needed this different type of day.