In today’s AJC, much is made of the masterful way in which the Atlanta Falcons calibrated their game-winning drive against Green Bay. Among other things, the Falcons drove 75 yards in 3:27 while stopping the clock only twice on incompletions and twice more when Mohamed Sanu was shoved out of bounds. They didn’t want to leave time for Aaron Rodgers to answer, and they succeeded in draining off all but 31 seconds. Great stuff.
But today we wonder — and this isn’t a second-guess; I said this in the press box as it was happening — if the Packers should have played it differently. Mike McCarthy had two timeouts at his disposal and declined to use either. He’d gotten away with something similar at the end of the first half, Rodgers having taken Green Bay to a field goal in 27 seconds, but this wasn’t the first half: This was win-or-lose time, and time had become a bigger issue for the visitors, bigger (I submit) than the score.
And so we ask: Should the Packers have let the Falcons score the go-ahead touchdown?
I know, I know. You’re probably saying, “Nobody in his right mind would cede a lead at the end of a game.” And I’m aware that the most famous example of an NFL coach allowing an opponent to score lives forever in Packers infamy: Mike Holmgren did it — and admitted later he’d miscounted what down it was — in the Super Bowl of January 1998 against the Broncos.
But that game was tied, and the Packers — even if Holmgren had gotten his downs right — were going to need a touchdown just to re-tie it. Had Green Bay allowed a touchdown Sunday, it would have needed only a field goal to win. So hear me out.
Were I McCarthy, I wouldn’t have pulled a Gator Flop with 3:58 remaining and the Falcons at their 25. But once the Falcons moved inside the Packers 30 and were clearly as concerned with taking as much time as they could before actually scoring — they let nearly 20 seconds expire ahead of the two-minute warning — defensive surrender should have become a viable strategy.
It wasn’t as if the Packers — without Clay Matthews and three regular cornerbacks — had stopped the Falcons much all day. The home side had punted twice, once in each half. In the first half, six consecutive snaps yielded six Falcons first downs (one via penalty) and a touchdown. On their climactic 11-play drive, the Falcons faced no down/distance worse than second-and-10. Their third downs, both converted, were third-and-1 and third-and-2. The winning touchdown came on first-and-10.
The Falcons, who would finish with 367 yards, were getting whatever they wanted on offense. (There were no turnovers in this careening game.) But so were the Packers. And here, if you’re McCarthy, don’t you have to ask: “Are my odds better of stopping this offense on the road on this day with my undermanned defense, or with taking the ball with more than a minute left and letting my quarterback go back to work?”
For Green Bay, the worst-case scenario wasn’t falling behind. That was always a possibility, and once the Falcons broached the 30-yard line it seemed a fait accompli. The worst-case scenario was in falling behind with not enough time remaining, which is what happened. Maybe the memory of Rodgers and those 27 first-half seconds swayed McCarthy’s thinking. If so, he erred.
Come the second half, the Falcons had made Vic Beasley Jr. their “spy.” There was no way Rodgers was going to scramble for 23 yards, as happened on that first-half drive, again.
Thirty-one seconds might have been enough, just, had Jordy Nelson hauled down Rodgers’ throw to the Atlanta 48 on second down, but Keanu Neal defended and Nelson couldn’t. As it was, Rodgers’ fourth-down incompletion came at 0:09 and the Packers 18 yards shy of midfield, still with a timeout at their disposal.
Credit the Falcons for stopping the Packers’ final fling. (It was, as noted, a terrific victory — the best under Dan Quinn.) But I’m not sure McCarthy gave his team its best chance to win at the end, which happened before in a game involving Quinn. (NFC championship, January 2015.)
I concede that it would have taken a ton of guts to allow a trailing opponent to claim the lead inside the final two minutes. But this is the NFL, and if you give a good quarterback time, he can find a way. McCarthy didn’t leave quite enough time for his quarterback. He either needed to burn his timeouts on defense or let the Falcons score. He stood on the sideline and did neither. His team lost.