Perceptions can change an awful lot in a week.
After watching the Packers dispatch the Seahawks last Sunday, Green Bay looked ready to take up the mantle as the class of the conference. The offense finished with 370 total yards and 26 first downs. Aaron Rodgers was cool in the face of near-constant pressure, and Green Bay’s offense controlled the tempo and the football, nearly doubling Seattle’s time of possession (39 minutes to 21)—including a masterful and demoralizing six-minute, 17-second final drive to finish the game and snuff out the Seahawks’ hope for a final chance at a comeback. The defense, meanwhile—a major vulnerability last season—looked like a much-improved unit, holding Seattle’s run game in check and stifling Russell Wilson and the Seahawks’ passing attack. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels was dominant. Nick Perry, unblockable. And a healthy secondary, flush with talent thanks to the additions of Davon House and Kevin King, looked ready to make a huge jump.
Flash forward a week, and as the fourth quarter kicked off in the Packers’ matchup with the Falcons on Sunday Night Football, Green Bay looked lost. They were trailing 34-10. Injuries had piled up. Rodgers had turned the ball over twice under the weight of the Falcons’ tireless pass rush, and the defense had found no answer for Atlanta’s target-rich and talented offense. In short, Atlanta had dominated in every way.
And sure, Rodgers engineered a pair of touchdown drives in the final frame to make the final score—34-23—somewhat respectable (and to give Falcons fans a few flashbacks to their team’s Super Bowl collapse). Whether or not you want to call it a blowout, it’d be easy to take a look at the box score and conclude that the Packers are looking pretty damn vulnerable on defense again and falling back to some of the same issues on offense that plagued them early last season. But the first few weeks of any NFL season are defined by small sample sizes, and while it’s nearly impossible to decide just how meaningful anything is this early in the year, I do know this: It’s far too early to hit the panic button on Green Bay’s Super Bowl hopes after their dismal performance in Atlanta.
No one’s going to diminish what the Falcons did in that game, because any blowout win in the NFL is impressive, let alone against a team most consider one of the better squads in the league. But context is important here, and Green Bay came into the game with, let’s just say, less than ideal circumstances on its offensive line. Every team must weather injuries throughout an NFL season, but few teams can be expected to do a lot without either of their starting tackles. Left tackle David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and right tackle Bryan Bulaga (illness/ankle) were both inactive, leaving Kyle Murphy as the guy on the blindside and unknown guard Justin McCray, he of zero career offensive snaps, on the right side.
That duo did about as well as you would expect. Green Bay’s patched-together offensive line (which also lost starting guard Jahri Evans for a while during the game) gave up three sacks and seven quarterback hits, including one of the most crucial plays of the game, this controversial forced fumble in the third quarter, which Desmond Trufant grabbed and ran in for a touchdown.
That scoop-and-score, which just as easily could’ve been an incomplete pass, gave the Falcons a 31-7 lead and ended up being the nail in the coffin for the Packers. Yet it’s just one of a few crucial plays that quickly turned what was shaping up to be a closely matched game into into a blowout. Trailing 17-7 with just over a minute in the half, Rodgers hit Randall Cobb over the middle for a 36-yard gain, putting Green Bay near midfield with a chance to get back on the board and cut it to a one-score game before going into the locker room. Instead, the play was nullified because of a debatable offensive pass interference call on Martellus Bennett. That left the Packers at their own 7-yard line. After a false start penalty pushed them back to the 3, Rodgers threw a pick to Desmond Trufant up the sideline. The Falcons went on to score a touchdown four plays later. Without that call on Bennett, we may have seen a different game.
Of course, we might’ve seen a different game if receiver Jordy Nelson hadn’t gone down during Green Bay’s first drive with a quad injury, or if Daniels hadn’t hurt his hamstring in the first quarter (neither returned). But that’s football; bad calls and injuries happen every game, and the Falcons capitalized. The Packers must turn their focus to next week’s matchup with the Bengals so they can fix some of the issues they had in Atlanta.
In the meantime, despite that ugly box score, there’s reason for optimism in two of the Packers’ key problem areas from last season. There’s little doubt anymore: The run game’s in good hands with Ty Montgomery, who continues to look like a game changer with breakaway speed, excellent vision, and tackle-breaking ability. You might not take that away from his line Sunday night—35 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown—but after falling behind early, Green Bay had to lean on the passing game, where Montgomery added 75 yards and a score, trucking defenders on a few occasions along the way. As for the Packers’ leaky pass defense from last year, rookie cornerback Kevin King could end up being the catalyst for a huge jump forward. The second-rounder showed plenty of promise lining up against the Falcons’ dangerous pass catchers—even shadowing Julio Jones at times—and didn’t give up a catch on four coverage targets. The lack of depth in the secondary was the Packers’ Achilles’ heel last season, and, based on early returns, King looks like a huge upgrade in the secondary and a player that could be an integral piece of Dom Capers’s unit this year.
Besides, slow starts seem to be an annual tradition for the Packers. The team that won the Super Bowl after the 2010 season started off 3-3, as did the squad that lost in the divisional round in the 2012 season. In 2014 Rodgers had to tell Green Bay fans to R-E-L-A-X after a 1-2 start before the team rattled off wins in 11 of its next 13 games to earn a trip to the postseason. Last season a 4-6 start prompted Rodgers to proclaim the Packers could “run the table,” and they did; six straight wins got them a spot in playoffs.
The Packers still have the most talented quarterback on the planet. Unless that changes, or until they’re mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, I’m not counting out Green Bay.