End of the Road

GREEN BAY - This time, Atlanta marched on Sherman -- and the Green Bay Packers.<p> Casualties included not only the Packers' season, but also the cherished perfect post-season record at Lambeau Field. The destruction was complete as Michael Vick and the Falcons defeated the luckless Packers even more thoroughly than the 27-7 score reveals.<p>

"To say this is disappointing is as big an understatement as I could ever make," an incensed Packers coach Mike Sherman said.

"Michael Vick's a great player, he made some great plays, we couldn't tackle him," Sherman said. "But their whole team played well. It wasn't just Michael Vick."

Green Bay (12-5) came into this game knowing they had to find a way to stop Vick. They knew they couldn't afford a slow start. They knew they had to compensate for injuries and make due with what they had -- which didn't include the badly needed Darren Sharper.

Suffice it to say that they succeeded in none of the above.

--Vick was 13-of-25 for 117 and rushed 10 times for 64 yards, numerous times turning sure sacks into big plays. He exploited his trademark elusiveness to portions which were comic or tragic, depending on allegiance.

--Atlanta,which hadn't reached the end zone on its opening drive all season, promptly went 76 yards in 10 plays, the payoff coming on Shawn Jefferson's 10-yard touchdown catch.

--Favre was without Pro Bowl running back Ahman Green (knee) and leading receivers Donald Driver (shoulder) and Terry Glenn (concussion) in a futile second-half comeback attempt. On the second play from scrimmage, Falcons center Todd McClure cut-blocked nose tackle Gilbert Brown, who went to the sideline for the rest of the drive. He attempted to return, but later was sidelined for the rest of the contest.

Those factors were the devil they knew. True to the old adage, it turned out to be bad enough, but not nearly as bad as the devil they didn't know.

No one, not even beleaguered special teams coach Frank Novak, could have forseen the complete implosion of that unit Saturday night. Linebacker Mark Simoneau beat Matt Bowen and blocked Josh Bidwell's punt (the first block this year for Bidwell) out of Green Bay's end zone. Artie Ulmer smothered the loose ball for another Atlanta touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

Ryan Longwell missed badly from 47 and 45 yards.

That's not even the worst news. The real trouble came when Kevin McCadem pushed Tyrone Williams into Green Bay punt returner Eric Metcalf. Falcons fullback George Layne recovered the muffed punt. Packers coach Mike Sherman didn't challenge the call -- and a review would have given Green Bay possession because the punted ball clearly bounced off McCadem's left shoulder. Four plays later, the Falcons made it 21-0 when T.J. Duckett carried the pile 6 yards into the end zone.

By the time snow began falling at halftime, the Falcons had an astonishing 24-0 lead and the picturesque Lambeau scene seemed like a cruel joke on the record crowd of 65,358.

With the depth chart down to Karsten Bailey at No. 3 receiver, Green on the sidelines and a huge deficit, Favre faced a near-impossible task. He finished 20-of-42 for 247 yards in the valiant effort The Falcons (10-6-1), who had backed into the playoffs after losing three of four in December, will travel to Philadelphia for a divisional playoff next weekend.

The Packers, who just one week ago still had a shot at the home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, began their offseason much sooner than anyone expected.

The fervent Falcons defense got the lead they needed to shake off the cold and turn in an unexpectedly staunch performance. They stopped the Packers with a goal-line stand, nose tackle Ellis Johnson dumping Green for a 4-yard loss on fourth down after Sherman elected not to go for a field goal.

As the much-awaited snow began falling, the exhilarated Falcons didn't flinch. Vick led them 90 yards in 16 plays for Jay Feely's 22-yard field goal on the final play of the first half for a 24-0 lead.

The big play on the drive came when Vick --again -- escaped a 15-yard sack by Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and turned it into an 11-yard gain to the Packer 29. The defensive was slowed by a stomach flu, and received IV fluid before the game and at half time.

Favre, who had two interceptions and a fumble, hit Driver with a 14-yard touchdown on the first drive after halftime, but Driver re-injured his dislocated shoulder on the play.

Driver lay motionless for several long moments after the catch, the pain of the play and the loss etched on his face. Favre ran to the end zone to help Driver to his feet and escorted him to the sideline. Driver's effort and lone TD provided possibly the only good memory the Packers can take away from a night they'd rather forget. Instead, much like last year, they'll have to mull over the demoralizing loss while the playoff party goes on.

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