PLAY OF THE GAME
For weeks, the Packers have needed someone – anyone – to make a play to help offset the loss of Aaron Rodgers. That was especially true for a defense that had been riddled for 400-plus yards in four of the five games in which Rodgers was sidelined.
On Sunday, Mike Neal delivered the first signature play of his career. With Atlanta nursing a 21-16 lead as the fourth quarter opened, Matt Ryan dialed up play-action on a first-down play from the 25. Ryan took a short drop and set up at the 20. Neal rushed forward against right tackle Ryan Schrader, and Ryan stepped up to the 22. Neal used his strength to push clear of Schrader, then alertly doubled back and hit Ryan from behind. The ball popped in the air for a fumble, which was recovered by Johnny Jolly.
"I remember looking at KG (outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene) and KG's like, ‘(Mike), you've got to make one (big play).' It was just a golden opportunity. (Schrader) overset me and I kind of pushed him by. I really didn't even know the quarterback had the ball. I looked up and everyone's going crazy and I saw Jolly with the ball. It was a good play at the right time of the game. It did wonders for us."
"You look for those plays," Neal said. "All throughout my career, you just want to be the guy to make that play and have the opportunity and it fell on my lap. It felt good. Obviously, it was a big momentum play and it boosted our offense and got us the ‘W' that we needed."
PLAYER OF THE GAME
On Tuesday, coach Mike McCarthy hinted of some subtle lineup changes. One of those was the benching of cornerback Davon House, with rookie Micah Hyde going from the dime defensive back to nickel and veteran Jarrett Bush taking over as the dime.
It was Bush, the star special-teams performer who had come up lacking as a defender for much of his eight-year career, who made two of the biggest plays to help the Packers hold off the Falcons.
First, on fourth-and-5 from the Packers' 33-yard line and with Atlanta just a first down away from getting into position for a game-winning field goal at the two-minute warning, Bush broke up a pass intended for future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
It was a play that Bush said he recognized off film study based on alignment.
"I knew it was going to be that type of route, just because he's that kind of reliable player and he's a great player," Bush said. "Matt Ryan has definitely a comfort level with him. Fourth down, why not go to the sure-handed guy? A lot of film study, a lot of practice, a lot of tape."
Then, with the Falcons in desperation mode on third-and-10 in the final moments, Bush intercepted a pass intended for Harry Douglas to end the game.
Almost an hour after the game ended, Bush arrived to talk to the waiting press corps.
"I just saw Jarrett walking back and forth from the sauna to the cold tub. He's crazy," said linebacker A.J. Hawk. "He's probably going to go out to the field and run sprints. I say it all the time, I have a little dog that I have to run on the treadmill all the time to tire out, and that's him. You have to get him tired. I love that guy. His approach has been amazing. You can never have too many of those guys."
It was a moment to savor for a player whose work ethic and practice routine are practically beyond parallel. Every summer, he makes play after play at training camp, only to give up plays once the games count. This season, according to the play counts at ProFootballFocus.com, Bush played in 22 snaps in the opener against San Francisco but just one play in the next eight games until playing extensively against the Giants and Vikings due to injuries.
"Yeah, it was," Bush said of whether his heroics were particularly satisfying because of how hard he prepares. "I'm not going to lie. At the same time, I helped my team. I felt like I helped my team win. That's what I'm here for, that's what they called me here for and that's my job."
GAZING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL
If Rodgers is cleared to play at Dallas on Sunday, the Packers might be the favorite in the NFC North. The Packers need to win out and get some help. With the Lions hosting surging Baltimore and the up-and-down New York Giants, then finishing their season at Minnesota, it's anything but a guarantee that Detroit runs the table to win the NFC North.
Of course, there's no guarantee that Rodgers is cleared to play the Cowboys. And there's no guarantee the Packers' defense can turn in another strong performance while facing the high-powered Dallas offense. Still, that Green Bay has a shot despite an 0-4-1 swoon is remarkable and an indictment of the Lions, who could find a dollar on the ground and then trip and fall and drop 105 pennies.
NUMBERS WORTH NOTING
2: Touchdowns out of five trips in the red zone by Green Bay's offense. The Packers entered the game ranked 31st with a red-zone touchdown percentage of 44.2. The Packers are 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) in the red zone since Aaron Rodgers' injury.
3: Receptions (for 25 yards) by Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who entered the game ranked second in NFL history with 1,304 receptions.
3.3: Eddie Lacy's rushing average vs. Atlanta. When he's over 3.2 per carry, the Packers are 6-1-1. When he's below that threshold, the Packers are 0-4.
5: Sacks absorbed by Matt Flynn. He's been sacked 12 times in the last two games, or 6.0 per game. In the first 11 games, Packers quarterbacks were sacked 25 times, or 2.3 per game.
6: Receptions (for 66 yards) by Packers tight end Andrew Quarless, who entered the game with 41 career receptions.
7: Points scored on Green Bay's opening possession. The Packers hadn't scored on their first possession in the first four games with Rodgers.
13: Consecutive regular-season home games won by the Packers in December and January, the league's longest streak.
15: Receptions of at least 25 yards this season by Jordy Nelson, with the latest his 46-yarder. That's one off the team record (kept since 1994) of 16, set by Nelson in 2011 and Greg Jennings in 2010. Nelson entered the game tied for the league lead in 25-yard receptions. Nelson pushed his season total to 1,046 receiving yards.
18: Plays on Green Bay's opening drive, the most on a touchdown drive by the team since a 19-play drive against Chicago in 2004.
32: Micah Hyde's kickoff return in the second half was the Packers' longest of the season. Entering the game, Green Bay's long return was 31 yards – the second-shortest "long" return in the league.
83: Rushing yards by the Falcons. The Packers had allowed 185.2 rushing yards per game during their five-game winless streak.
87.8: Mason Crosby's field-goal percentage this season, with his 3-for-3 performance pushing him to 29-of-33 for the season. His career-best mark was 85.7 percent, set in 2011. He's two field goals off his career high of 31, set as a rookie in 2007. His 880 points in his fist seven seasons are the most in NFL history, surpassing Mike Vanderjagt (874).
206: Passing yards by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, his first 200-yard game in five career games.
285: Total yards by the Falcons. The Packers had allowed 439.8 yards per game during their winless streak.
1,002: Career tackles by A.J. Hawk, including four against Atlanta. That put Hawk past Johnnie Gray (1,001) for third place in franchise history (since records began being kept in 1975). Nick Barnett is next with 1,014 and John Anderson holds the top spot with 1,020 tackles.
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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.