Injury bug catches up to Packers

Standing in Lambeau Field's famed south end zone, near the same spot where Bart Starr's quarterback sneak ripped out his heart 35 years earlier in the NFL Championship, Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Reeves accepted an embrace and a congratulatory offer from a member of the Falcons' organization following Atlanta's stunning 27-7 Wild Card win over the Green Bay Packers Saturday night.<p>

Smiling wide, Reeves – on the losing end of a 21-17 decision to the Packers in the legendary 1967 Ice Bowl contest as a halfback on the Dallas Cowboys - returned the hug before uttering, "We caught them at the right time."

That may be the understatement of the entire NFL season.

Not taking anything away from the Falcons' strong overall performance, but the Packers' season-long battle with the injury bug may finally have taken its toll.

The Packers entered the game short-handed and then had to withstand a series of injuries throughout the game. As a result, Green Bay was forced to delve deep into its roster just to have players on the field. And when all was said and done, the injury epidemic more than likely played a role in the Packers' surprising unraveling.

"Well, I just know there's a lot of teams dealing with injuries in the NFL," defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila said. "That's part of the game. You just have to find a way to win."

True, but very few teams would have been able to deal with what transpired for the Packers against Atlanta.

Starting safety Darren Sharper and nickel back Tod McBride were inactive due to injury, which forced the Packers to start Matt Bowen in Sharper's spot and play Bryant Westbrook, with Antuan Edwards, in dime packages. Sharper hurt his right knee early against Buffalo Dec. 22, while McBride aggravated a groin injury he had suffered a few weeks ago during last week's loss to the New York Jets.

But that was only the beginning.

Starting wide receiver Terry Glenn didn't play in the second half after suffering a concussion, and starting defensive tackle Gilbert Brown hurt his hip after being cut block by Falcons center Todd McClure in the first quarter. Brown played on until halftime before giving way because he was in too much discomfort to continue. Brown had his hip X-rayed at the half, but they were negative. Rod Walker came in for Brown.

Starting running back Ahman Green was forced out for good in the second half after bruising his knee and starting wide receiver Donald Driver missed a good chunk of the second half after re-aggravating a shoulder injury he had suffered last week against the Jets.

At one point in the second half, the Packers' offense consisted of receivers Javon Walker, Robert Ferguson and Karsten Bailey and running back Tony Fisher. Add to that a patchwork offensive line that had regular center Mike Flanagan starting at left tackle, veteran Frank Winters filling in at center and backup Earl Dotson starting at right tackle and you've got one big mess on your hands.

Despite the enormous rash of injuries, no one was using those as an excuse for losing to the Falcons.

"I think every guy has to step up," said Driver. "There's 53 players in this locker room, and every guy has to do his job. Regardless of who gets hurt, another guy has to step up."

For the most part, the backups did step up throughout the season and played well enough for the Packers to finish as NFC North Division champions with a 12-4 record. But when players continue to drop one by one, the tank eventually hits empty, and that's precisely what appeared to happen to the Packers late in the season.

However, many of the players said afterward that injuries are simply a part of football.

"When we had injuries, we didn't worry about it," Green said. "You're going to have seasons where nobody gets hurt at all, and you're going to have seasons like we did. If you worry about it and you dwell on it, that's when you kind of put yourself backwards. You just look at it as part of the game and continue to play and practice hard."

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