When the Green Bay Packers kicked off the season against the New Orleans Saints in a battle of the last two Super Bowl champions, the feeling was the winner of the Week 1 game would be the team that would host the NFC Championship Game.
And if not the Packers or Saints jockeying for NFC supremacy, maybe the Atlanta Falcons or Philadelphia Eagles would be in that mix.
So, here we are, five weeks into the season, and the Packers and Saints are predictably among the NFC's powers, with Green Bay 5-0 and New Orleans 4-1.
Unpredictably, the Falcons are 2-3 and the Eagles – the self-proclaimed Dream Team – are a stunning 1-4.
Atlanta had its shot to show that it was, indeed, a NFC heavyweight by hosting Green Bay on Sunday night. The Falcons sure looked like it by dominating the first 17 1/2 minutes. Total yards: 140 to 46. Total plays: 23 to 9. Score: 14 to 0.
The Packers' horrific defense had played, well, horrifically. It had no answers for Michael Turner. No answers for Matt Ryan. The Falcons practically were toying with the defense, in general, and Clay Matthews, in particular.
Offensively, Ryan Grant lost his first fumble in forever and Pro Bowl left tackle Chad Clifton went down with an injured hamstring. Certainly, there was no way the offense could function with a couple of green-as-grass offensive tackles.
The Packers pulled within 14-6 at halftime, but three big factors were pointing the Falcons' way. While Atlanta punched both of its red-zone possessions into the end zone, the Packers' offense bogged down on first-and-goal from the 4 and second-and-2 at the 7. Moreover, the Packers touched the ball just three times in the first half as the Falcons, as is their style, played keepaway. Finally, sheer history put the Packers behind the eight-ball, with Falcons coach Mike Smith boasting a 29-1 record when leading at halftime and Ryan boasting a 21-2 career record in regular-season home games.
By the end of the night, though, the Packers emerged with could be a defining win – their 11th in a row dating to last season.
While the Falcons wound up with four sacks – their first three sacks since Week 1 – young offensive tackles Marshall Newhouse and Derek Sherrod played at a high level. Just how high? During the second half, coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers dialed up 19 passes and two runs until a clock-killing and game-clinching drive began midway through the fourth quarter.
Rodgers finished with another jaw-dropping performance – 396 yards, two touchdowns and completions to 12 players. The only skill-position player on the active roster who did not get in on the act was rookie Ryan Taylor.
Meanwhile, the NFL's 28th ranked defense came to life. After those touchdowns, the Falcons' next six possessions managed merely 11 yards and two first downs, and their final two drives ended in interceptions.
Green Bay might not be the best team in the league in terms of sheer talent but it's overwhelmingly the mentally toughest team in the league. They could have cashed in their chips in this one, with the 4-0 start providing some cushion to offset a loss against a talented team that was desperate for a win. Instead, the offense played through Clifton's injury just like it played through injuries last season. Instead, a defense that had allowed 406.8 yards per game wound up dominating.
"To me, that is clearly the most important element, characteristic of our football team, and that's really what we talked about at halftime," McCarthy said. "We didn't talk about the score, didn't talk about what went wrong. We talked about adversity football. It's a strength of this football team. We're building something special with our ability to make plays when we need them. I thought our football team did an excellent job with that in the second half."
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That's in stark contrast to the Falcons, who rolled over after Tramon Williams' pick-six in the playoff game in January and rolled over again when the Packers began asserting their will. That's in stark contrast to the Dream Team, as well. The Eagles lost at Buffalo, with their five turnovers matching the Packers' season total.
At some point, general managers are going to learn that high-priced free agents don't win games. No, character wins games. Character, a great quarterback and a great coach. So far, it's an unbeatable combination.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.