Packers vs. Falcons: Aaron Rodgers leads Green Bay's 48-21 rout

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 12:45 AM

ATLANTA - The Green Bay Packers got a virtuoso passing performance by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and more major contributions on defense by cornerback Tramon Williams. And they, not the Atlanta Falcons, played like a dominant team Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.

The Packers beat the Falcons with relative ease, 48-21, in a conference semifinal here to advance to next weekend's NFC championship game.

"It was a special day," Rodgers said. "We kind of did what we wanted to do."

Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns in a breathtaking showing that further justified the Packers' decision to make him their starter and oust legendary quarterback Brett Favre, against Favre's wishes, in the summer of 2008. Rodgers didn't throw an interception and also ran for a touchdown, then gave way in the final minutes to backup Matt Flynn.

The sixth-seeded Packers, who needed a win on the final Sunday of the regular season to secure the NFC's last wild-card playoff spot, scored 35 unanswered points after the Falcons grabbed a 14-7 lead on Eric Weems's second-quarter touchdown on a kickoff return.

Williams, who had a late interception to seal the Packers' first-round playoff triumph at Philadelphia, added two more interceptions Saturday of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, the second of which he returned for a touchdown as time expired in the first half. Fullback John Kuhn had one touchdown run and one touchdown catch for the Packers. Rodgers also had touchdown passes to wide receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones.

Kicker Mason Crosby provided a pair of fourth-quarter field goals in what was, by then, a rapidly emptying stadium. The Packers will play at either Chicago or Seattle in the NFC title game, depending on the outcome of Sunday's Bears-Seahawks game at Soldier Field.

The Falcons were the NFC's top playoff seed after going 13-3 during the regular season. But they unraveled Saturday after starting the game solidly, crafting an early lead on a touchdown run by tailback Michael Turner and Weems's kickoff return. Ryan threw a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Roddy White in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. But it was far too little, far too late.

"It was a tough night for our football team," Falcons Coach Mike Smith said. "We made way too many mistakes [and] ran into a hot quarterback playing at a high level."

The Falcons went 7-1 at home during the regular season, with the only loss coming to the New Orleans Saints in the next-to-last game of the season. That forced the Falcons to beat the Carolina Panthers in the regular season finale to wrap up the conference's top seed. They defeated the Packers at the Georgia Dome during the regular season, but were shorthanded in the secondary Saturday against Rodgers because cornerback Brian Williams was on the inactive list due to a knee injury.

The Packers were coming off a road triumph over the third-seeded Eagles. That win by the Packers meant there wouldn't be a return to Atlanta this postseason by Eagles quarterback Michael Vick to face his original NFL team. It also established the Packers as an extremely dangerous team in these playoffs, given that they'd gotten some effective running by rookie tailback James Starks to complement the passing of Rodgers.

It didn't take the offenses long to get going Saturday night. The Falcons took the lead on their second possession. Smith left his offense on the field for a fourth-and-one gamble from the Green Bay 13-yard line, perhaps sensing this wasn't the sort of game in which field goals would be sufficient to win. The Falcons got the first down on a one-yard run by fullback Ovie Mughelli, and on the next play Turner weaved his way around defenders for a 12-yard touchdown dash.

But Rodgers was on target from the outset, and the Packers had a swift reply. Rodgers's passing took the Packers down the field, and he zipped a six-yard throw to Nelson for the touchdown.

Weems caught the ensuing kickoff in his end zone, sprinted straight up the middle of the field, eluded Crosby with a fake to the left and a sharp cut to the right and outraced everyone else in pursuit for a 102-yard touchdown. But Rodgers and the Packers just were getting started. Rodgers took the Packers 92 yards for a touchdown, ending with Kuhn's one-yard run.

"Once we got into the second quarter, it started going away from us. . . . They were the better team today," Smith said.

The Falcons squandered a scoring chance when Ryan threw an end-zone interception to Tramon Williams, and Jones out-jumped Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes to catch Rodgers's 20-yard touchdown lob 42 seconds before halftime. That capped Rodgers's 18-for-21, 234-yard, two-touchdown passing show in the first half.

"This probably was my best performance - at this stage, the importance of the game," Rodgers said. "It was a good night."

The Packers weren't finished, however. Ryan, trying to get the Falcons down the field in a hurry, rolled to his left and threw a pass toward his favorite receiving target, White, along the sideline. But Williams cut in front of White and grabbed the pass, then raced 70 yards to the opposite end zone with no time on the clock.

"I kind of recognized the formation," Williams said. "I knew they were trying to get into field goal range. . . . Once he made the out cut, I broke underneath it. . . . I just made a play on the ball."

That quickly, the Packers had a two-touchdown lead at the intermission. They made it 28 straight points - and a 21-point advantage - in the third quarter when Rodgers improvised for a touchdown on a seven-yard scramble. The Packers got the ball back and made it a 42-14 game on Rodgers's seven-yard touchdown pass to Kuhn.

"We expect to play well - maybe not this well," Rodgers said.

The Packers never punted the ball all night.

"We're a championship-caliber football team," Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said. "We feel very good about who we are, how we play, our brand of football. And that's what we're sticking to."

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