ATLANTA -- There was a long line for the press box elevator Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome, so a few of us found the nearest stairwell and started our descent toward the Green Bay Packers' locker room. Around and around we went. More than once, I stopped and peered over the railing. When would it stop? When would we find the door?
I'm guessing the Packers were having similar thoughts, for different reasons, after their 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Each of their four losses this season has come by three points, twice in overtime and twice on field goals in the final 10 seconds of regulation. Through 12 weeks of the NFL season, the Packers have been a good team that can't find the door that would take them where they want to go.
(For those interested: Yes, I eventually made it to the locker room. And no, I have no plans to grasp for additional metaphors on this fine day.)
"Atlanta made one more play than we did," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We need to do a better job of making one more play than the other team in those close games."
The "one-more-play" explanation is a tired cliché in the NFL, but on this day it applied perfectly to the Packers, who fell to 7-4 and are now a full game behind the Chicago Bears (8-3) in the NFC North. You can put together a nice winning season by overpowering the weaker teams you face. But if your goals extend beyond that, if you want to be a great team that makes a Super Bowl push, you must win the tough games as well. You must accept that one or two poorly-timed mistakes is all it takes to lose a game like this.
Everyone sees things their own way. But for me, this game boiled down to a pair of plays -- two plays between really good teams that have the capacity to win the Super Bowl. There was a goal-line fumble by an otherwise brilliant Aaron Rodgers, and a face-mask penalty against coverage specialist Matt Wilhelm that set up Matt Bryant's winning 47-yard field goal.
I'm sure you could point to other key points in the game, including Michael Turner's fourth-down touchdown run in the fourth quarter and the failure of the Packers to challenge an apparent fourth-down drop by Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez in the second quarter. But wherever your eyes ultimately gaze, the conclusion is the same.
The Packers at times have played as well as anyone in the NFL, most notably during their recent four-game winning streak. But the difference between having the best record in the NFC and the second-best record in NFC North has come down to a total of 12 points.
"The Falcons are a good fundamental team that does the right thing all the time," Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "They're going to try to make the other team make mistakes. They did that and then they also made some big plays on their own."
The game was tied at 3 midway through the second quarter when Rodgers led the Packers from their 15-yard line to a first-and-goal at the Falcons' 2. His first-down pass to fullback Quinn Johnson was high, and on second down, Rodgers audibled into a quarterback draw. But during the process of the ensuing tackle, he took a "funny bone" hit to the elbow.
Rodgers said the elbow was fine, but the hit was impactful enough that the Packers' medical staff examined him on the sideline a few minutes later. Regardless, we all know what that needle sensation feels like, and it's fair to wonder if Rodgers was at full capacity on the next play -- a called quarterback sneak.
Rodgers was holding the ball in his left arm when the ball popped loose. Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton "hit right on the ball," Rodgers said of his first fumble this season. "Inexcusable on my part."
Would Rodgers have maintained possession if he had the ball in his right arm as usual? We'll never know, but these are the kind of micro-questions we have to ask in a close and mostly well-played game between two really good teams.
The same is true for Wilhelm's face mask penalty. The Packers had just tied the game on an epic 90-yard drive, culminating with Rodgers' 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson on fourth down with 56 seconds remaining.
Falcons returner Eric Weems probably should have taken a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, which Mason Crosby drilled four yards into the end zone. Weems took off anyway on a 40-yard return and might have had more had Wilhelm not desperately stuck out his left hand to stop him. The hand landed on Weems' face mask, and Wilhelm instinctively yanked him to the ground.
Had Wilhelm simply made the tackle, or had the Packers covered better, the Falcons would have taken over at their 36-yard line or worse with one timeout remaining. Instead, they gained possession on the Packers' 49-yard line and needed only about 20 yards to get in Bryant's range.
"He had a head full of steam running down the middle of our kickoff coverage," Wilhelm said. "My mind frame is: By any means necessary, get him to the ground. Was it my intention to get him by his face mask? It never is. It happened and you could see just my hand reached out to grab him. ... It just happened."
Look, I'm not blaming Wilhelm or Rodgers for this loss. But to me, those two plays can't happen when you're trying to find that proverbial door. Due in part to Rodgers' fumble, the Packers netted only 17 points on four trips to the red zone. And in a tied game with less than a minute left, Wilhelm significantly reduced the Falcons' level of difficulty.
Usually against really good teams, that's all it takes. Four similar losses in an 11-game span is enough to suggest something is missing here.
"We're into December football now," McCarthy said. "There are no redos and no, 'Hey, we'll get them next weeks.' You have to play big in adversity downs in the game."
The Packers had a couple slipups Sunday and that was all the Falcons needed. The door is out there somewhere for the Packers, but to this point, they're stuck in the stairwell.