Since Oct. 24, the day the Bengals had scored 32 points in the Dome, the Falcons’ defense had been more consistent than their star-spangled offense. (Five offensive Falcons to the Pro Bowl, only one defender.) It had held Baltimore to 21 points, Green Bay and New Orleans to 17. It was becoming the fleet and fierce unit general manager Thomas Dimitroff had envisioned as he was building.
Suffice it to say that TD the GM never envisioned what happened Saturday. Nobody did. Nobody could have.
A defense that didn’t yield more than 32 points in any game this regular season was overrun for 42 points — in the first three quarters. The D had made a big early play, Stephen Nicholas forcing a Greg Jennings fumble that Brent Grimes gathered. That enabled the Falcons to take a 7-0 lead. That would also be the last time over the next five Green Bay drives that the Packers didn’t score a touchdown.
Five possessions, five scores. The first four came on drives of 81, 92, 80 and 80 yards. (The final series spanned a mere 50.) The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers didn’t complete every pass, but he came close. Through three quarters he had passed 31 times, completing 27. He’d thrown for 330 yards in 45 minutes.
Rodgers had treated the Falcons’ secondary as if the signing of Dunta Robinson had never been consummated, as if Brent Grimes hadn’t developed into a big-play cornerback, as if nothing that occurred this regular season had been anything more than a sweet dream.
Alas, this was reality, stark and sobering. In a playoff game against a top-class quarterback, the Falcons’ newly tailored defense was made to seem shabby. The pass rush couldn’t get there, and nobody downfield could cover or tackle or do much of anything.
It was so bad that the Falcons, who’d led 14-7, ventured into the final period down by 28 points. This from a team that had, with Matt Ryan as its quarterback, lost only one Dome game before falling to New Orleans on Dec. 27. That night was disappointing, but not because of the defense. This night, by way of contrast, was so crushing as to make us wonder if the defense is indeed, as Dimitroff suggested this week, rounding into a championship unit.
Could Brian Williams have meant that much? He’s the Falcons’ fifth defensive back, the nickel man. He played in every regular-season game but hurt his knee against Carolina on Jan. 2. He couldn’t go Saturday, and into the nickel stepped Christopher Owens. Falcons defensive backs have had worse nights over the years — remember Charles Dimry against Jerry Rice? — but there haven’t been many. And Robinson and Grimes weren’t any better.
Credit Rodgers and the Packers for seizing on Williams’ absence. That said: Should losing your nickel man reduce a defense — a defense that ranked No. 5 in the 32-team NFL in points yielded — to rubble? If five possessions garner 35 opposing points, can you really be said to have a defense at all?
No, the offense wasn’t very good, either, and Matt Ryan was terrible. (His end-of-the-first-half interception will live in infamy.) But few offenses could have kept pace with the ravenous Packers this night, and certainly Mike Mularkey’s grind-it-out game plan is poorly suited for a point-a-minute game. This loss can be shared by all, but the defense was first — or, put more precisely, last — among equals.
But what now? Is this game a signal that the defense cannot hold up under duress, or was it simply one wretched night under the glare of the postseason? Thomas Dimitroff has some decisions to make, and they won’t be easy calls.
By Mark Bradley