GREEN BAY—Much maligned and criticized over the past month, the Packers defense did more than just stand a little taller on Sunday.
The defense was the reason for a season-saving, come-from-behind, 22-21 victory over Atlanta at Lambeau Field.
A second-half shutout that featured a pair of three-and-outs, a sack-fumble to set up a touchdown, two stops inside the Green Bay 35-yard line and an interception in the waning seconds – all in that order – fueled and preserved the Packers' rally from a 21-10 halftime deficit that has pulled them back to within a half game of the NFC North lead.
"Today was one of those games we've been searching for, fighting for, and we hadn't found a way to get one this year," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "This was the way to come back and take control of it, take it home."
The 21 points on the board for Atlanta at intermission were a misnomer, as far as the Packers defense was concerned. The Falcons put together one long scoring drive of 78 yards, but their other two TDs were the result of Packers turnovers, one at the Green Bay 13-yard line and the other a fluky, deflected interception that was run all the way back for a score.
The pressure was on the Packers defense to keep the Falcons at 21, and the message at halftime – moments after the wacky 71-yard interception return thoroughly deflated the 77,550 in attendance – was just to "keep playing."
"In the game of football, one half it can swing one way and the other half it can swing the other way," outside linebacker Mike Neal said. "If you keep playing, the situation can turn around, and obviously it did."
After the consecutive three-and-outs led to two field goals to make it 21-16, Neal became the first of many defensive heroes. He strip-sacked Falcons QB Matt Ryan on the second snap of the fourth quarter, and teammate Johnny Jolly recovered at the Atlanta 21.
Four plays later, the Packers were in the end zone and grabbing a lead for the first time since the end of the first quarter.
"We didn't have much room for error, and guys came out and played like that," cornerback Tramon Williams said.
The work was just beginning, however.
Protecting that one-point lead, the Packers allowed the Falcons on their next two drives to cross the Green Bay 35, right on the edge of field goal range on a cold and slightly windy day. Five or 10 more yards and the lead could have changed hands.
The first time, the Packers got a huge break, as the Falcons called a wide-receiver screen on third-and-12 and caught Green Bay in a blitz. But receiver Harry Douglas, with more blockers in front of him than defenders, couldn't pull in Ryan's quick throw. Kicker Matt Bryant then came up short on a 52-yard field goal try.
The second time, the Packers were again just hanging on. Inside linebackers Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore both left with injuries in a span of three plays, forcing the defense to play its dime package with six defensive backs, because Hawk was the only healthy inside linebacker.
That dime back was Jarrett Bush, who was one-on-one with Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez and knew the ball was coming his way on fourth-and-5 from the Green Bay 33. On a slightly low throw, Bush managed to distract Gonzalez enough that he bobbled and couldn't haul in the pass, giving the ball back to Green Bay with 1:55 left.
"Matt Ryan has a comfort level with him," Bush said of Gonzalez. "Fourth down, why not go to the sure-hands guy?
"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. I'm just happy we got the win. Huge team win."
Bush, described by Jolly as a player who "works so hard when no one is looking," wasn't done. The Falcons got one last-ditch chance from their own 9 with 44 seconds left. Two completions moved the ball to the Atlanta 43, but Douglas dropped another one along the sideline that would have given the Falcons a first down well across midfield.
Instead it was third down with 11 seconds left, and Ryan's pass into an eight-man coverage scheme was picked off by Bush, his first interception since Week 15 of 2011.
"Clutch," Williams said of Bush, though the word could also be used to describe the defense as a whole on this day. "He's been here eight years, battling with us. He was into the moment. He made the play when we needed it."
Getting their first win since late October, a stretch that Neal said "felt like forever," the Packers and their defense came to life on Sunday. As a result, the season lives, too.
"Only being a half game back provides hope," linebacker Clay Matthews said, "and that's a powerful thing." Complete game coverage