ATLANTA – It's one of those "what if" moments that gives a team already playing uphill yet another difficulty to overcome.
Green Bay couldn't on Sunday night, but it was evident in Aaron Rodgers' voice after the 34-23 loss to the Falcons at new Mercedes-Benz Stadium that he felt the Packers were in this game much more than the 24-point second-half deficit indicated.
The turning point came with a minute left in the first half. The Packers trailed, 17-7, with the ball on their own 13-yard line.
Rodgers found a wide-open Randall Cobb on an in-cut, and Cobb weaved his way out to midfield. The Packers were in business, looking to get within seven, or maybe even three points, by halftime.
But the officials flagged tight end Martellus Bennett for offensive pass interference, calling him for running a "pick" on Cobb's defender. The penalty wiped out the big play, two snaps later Rodgers threw an interception, and the Falcons scored to go up 24-7 at intermission.
"The one on Marty, unfortunately it was a terrible time for that," Rodgers said. "If we score on that drive, we get the ball on the first possession of the second half, it's a different game."
Rodgers and McCarthy were incredulous. They said they didn't get any kind of explanation from the officials. When the Falcons ran a similar pick play at the goal line to score right before halftime, and it wasn't called, McCarthy ended up getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing.
Picks and rubs at the goal line are common, and the Packers were flagged for one – correctly, Rodgers pointed out – in the third quarter when they had to settle for a field goal.
The one on Bennett in the middle of the field was the game-changer, though.
"I don't know how you call pass interference on that when Marty is running a drag route, Cobb runs a slant route, shakes his guy, and Marty is looking back at me and gets run into," Rodgers said.
"There are pick routes in the game, but that definitely wasn't one. It's an area of emphasis but you can't see ghosts out there. It probably should have been a no-call."
It was a tough break when a lot was already working against Green Bay, injury-wise, crowd-wise, etc., in this one. How much difference it would have made is up for debate, because the Packers' defense was getting gashed by Matt Ryan and Co., putting Rodgers and his mates in the tough position of trying to keep up in a loud, road environment.
Rodgers wondered whether he was hit helmet-to-helmet, too, on the backwards pass that turned into a scoop-and-score for the Falcons, though he admitted he had to get the ball out of his hands quicker on that play.
In any event, it was all more frustration to throw on the pile of injuries the Packers are taking back to Green Bay with them.
A minor unfortunate circumstance was Rodgers' 300th career touchdown pass coming late in a game like this. He reached the milestone in far fewer pass attempts and with many fewer interceptions than anyone else in NFL history. It's too bad it can't be celebrated more.
He also threw it left-handed, of all things, on a 1-yard shovel pass to running back Ty Montgomery, a change-up he didn't plan for the history books.
"No, I didn't," Rodgers said. "But they all count."
So do all these games, and while it's early, Rodgers and the Packers know they'll regret letting this one get away if a playoff rematch materializes in a few months.
First, the Packers have to get healthy and get winning again, but they know they've only lost twice in their last 11 contests dating back to last November, both to the same team.
"This is a potential matchup down the line, and hopefully we put ourselves in that position," Rodgers said.
"I think we can beat anyone at home. If it comes down to some sort of tiebreaker in December and January, this game might be a big one. We might have to come back here. But I think we can beat anyone at home."
The Packers have 14 more games to try to earn as many additional home games as possible.
However it transpired, Sunday's result has thrown an additional obstacle in their way.
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