ATLANTA – It wasn't Aaron Rodgers' words that conveyed how proud he was of teammate and good friend Jordy Nelson for laying it on the line Sunday with broken ribs.
It was how few words he could get out when asked about it.
"I'm so proud of Jordy," Rodgers said with an emotional stumble following Green Bay's NFC title game loss to Atlanta in the Georgia Dome. "It's incredible he was out there."
A briefly choked-up Rodgers had to end the thought there. Head Coach Mike McCarthy echoed the sentiment in talking about Nelson's "toughness, character, and commitment to be a Green Bay Packer."
Nelson, coming back after cracking multiple ribs 14 days ago, sparked the offense early with two receptions on Green Bay's opening drive and finished with six catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, setting the franchise record for career postseason receptions (54) in the process.
He played with hefty protection around his midsection that didn't seem to make his effort any less painful. Though it wasn't nearly enough in the 44-21 loss to the Falcons, Nelson's guts and dedication reflected that shown by the entire team over the previous two months.
"I'm proud of these guys," Rodgers said. "Our backs were against the wall eight weeks in a row, and we won some big games. We just came up a little short."
For Rodgers, Nelson and a handful of others, it was their third NFC Championship Game appearance in the last seven seasons. The last two have resulted in losses, and Rodgers emphasized after the game that the best way to turn that around is to play this game at home instead.
The Packers were able to win the first of three NFC title road games in Chicago six years ago, but the last two in Seattle and Atlanta were definitely impacted by the home crowd.
The Seahawks' fourth-quarter surge felt impossible to stop two years ago, with the fans rocking CenturyLink Field so hard the place was shaking.
In the final game in the history of the Georgia Dome, the Packers never got the momentum on their side. Crowd noise seemed to contribute to miscommunications on offense, particularly in pass protection, and the defense succumbed to the snowball effect from the opening possession.
"If this has taught us anything, it's how important home-field advantage is," Rodgers said. "You get to sleep in your own bed, not have to travel, have the fan support. It makes a big difference.
"We've played in three of these now, all on the road. It's tough to win on the road."
The season will be remembered for righting the ship after a four-game losing streak, but it was that month-long funk that cost the Packers a chance to be at home more in January.
The one-point loss in this same Georgia Dome back on Oct. 30 ended up factoring considerably in the NFC postseason pecking order, as well as how things shook out between the last two teams standing.
"We went through adversity and lost some games we should have won, which probably would have changed some playoff seedings," Rodgers said. "You have to win more games to give yourself an opportunity to host this game. That needs to be the focus moving forward next year."
Rodgers also talked about how the adversity forced several young players into more prominent roles throughout the year, and the team was better for it.
While he mentioned a strong desire to keep his offensive line together, and that tight end Jared Cook should be "near the top of the priority list" for re-signing, it's the continued growth of the young, rising players – like Geronimo Allison, Aaron Ripkowski, Ty Montgomery, Kenny Clark, and Joe Thomas, among others – that will determine a lot about the near future of these Packers.
"We need to reload," Rodgers said. "I don't think we need to rebuild, we need to reload. We have a lot of young guys who were big contributors that we didn't expect starting the season out."
The quarterback plans to reload, too, after an otherworldly stretch of eight games that didn't quite make it to nine.
"I still feel pretty young. I've got a number of years left in me," Rodgers said. "We need to make sure we're going all in every year to win, and we can take a big step this offseason."
Hodkiewicz: Nelson toughed it out for the team
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