Loss may have cost Pack­ers home-field ad­van­tage

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The Green Bay Pack­ers and At­lanta Fal­cons will be dif­fer­ent teams by the time the play­offs roll around in Jan­uary.

But like last sea­son, an early loss to the Fal­cons in At­lanta could force the Pack­ers to make an­other long trip south if there’s a re­match in the post­sea­son.

Sun­day night’s con­vinc­ing de­feat at Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium re­vealed how im­por­tant play­ing post­sea­son games at Lam­beau Field will be for the Pack­ers, who didn’t have the team speed or ath­leti­cism to keep up with the high-pow­ered Fal­cons on the fast track in­side their brand new sta­dium.

Matt Ryan threw for 252 yards and a touch­down, Devonta Free­man and Tevin Cole­man com­bined for 145 to­tal yards and three touch­downs and Julio Jones caught five passes for 108 yards, with 95 com­ing dur­ing a dom­i­nant first half for the Fal­cons of­fense. The early pro­ceed­ings of­ten re­sem­bled the track meet put on by Ryan and his im­pres­sive cast of weapons dur­ing last Jan­uary’s NFC ti­tle game.

The end re­sult was a closer score­line but a sim­i­lar feel­ing in­side the Pack­ers locker room.

“We didn’t do enough,” Pack­ers line­backer Clay Matthews said. “I know it’s one game, but it’s un­for­tu­nate, es­pe­cially when you want to test your­self against the elite.”

The Fal­cons have scored 111 points in the last three games against Green Bay in At­lanta. It might take the grass of Lam­beau Field and the cold of a Wis­con­sin win­ter to slow down what the Fal­cons have go­ing on of­fense and de­fense.

No player on the Pack­ers ros­ter seems to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of home-field ad­van­tage in the post­sea­son bet­ter than quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers, who cam­paigned all off­sea­son for a fast start and a le­git­i­mate run at the top seed in the NFC. The NFL’s two-time MVP is sick and tired of try­ing to get back to the Su­per Bowl by go­ing on the road and play­ing play­off games away from home in Jan­uary.

Rodgers stepped to the podium on Sun­day night and once again beat the drum for Green Bay’s need to play the big games in the post­sea­son at Lam­beau Field.

“I think we can beat any­body at home,” Rodgers said. “We don’t look at it as clos­ing the gap (with the Fal­cons). Ob­vi­ously, if it comes down to some sort of tiebreaker when we get down into De­cem­ber and Jan­uary, this game could be a big one, and we might have to come back here. But I think we can beat any­body at home.”

At the very least, Sun­day night’s loss in At­lanta re­duced the mar­gin for er­ror over the fi­nal 14 games. The Fal­cons are 2-0 and now hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Pack­ers, who will re­turn to Green Bay for back-to-back home games against the Cincin­nati Ben­gals and Chicago Bears be­fore a pair of im­por­tant road trips to Dal­las and Min­nesota to start Oc­to­ber.

Back in 2014, a Week 1 loss to the Seat­tle Sea­hawks broke the reg­u­lar-sea­son tiebreaker and forced the Pack­ers to re­turn to Seat­tle for the NFC ti­tle game. It could be déjà vu — with the set­ting of a post­sea­son re­match be­ing dic­tated by a Septem­ber de­feat — if the Pack­ers don’t leap At­lanta in the standings over the next three and a half months.

The les­son was also learned last year. The Fal­cons fin­ished at 11-5; the Pack­ers at 10-6. At­lanta’s come-from-be­hind win in Oc­to­ber even­tu­ally pro­vided the dif­fer­ence in the fi­nal standings. Flip the reg­u­lar sea­son re­sult and the Fal­cons would have been Green Bay bound in an NFC ti­tle game.

The Fal­cons still look like the class of the con­fer­ence in 2017, but they have plenty of po­ten­tial road­blocks on the sched­ule, in­clud­ing a road game against the Detroit Lions this week and a stretch in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber fea­tur­ing four games away from At­lanta in five games. They still have to go to New Eng­land and Seat­tle.

The rest of the NFC is al- ready loaded with un­cer­tainty. The Cow­boys were rock solid in Week 1 but took a sig­nif­i­cant step back in Den­ver in Week 2, los­ing 42-17 to the Bron­cos. The Sea­hawks were smacked around by the Pack­ers in Week 1 and nar­rowly es­caped an up­set by the vis­it­ing San Fran­cisco 49ers on Sun­day. The Min­nesota Vik­ings didn’t have Sam Brad­ford in Pitts­burgh and failed to put up much of a fight against the AFC con­tenders.

The Carolina Pan­thers are an unin­spir­ing 2-0, with wins over the 49ers and Buf­falo Bills to start the sea­son.

All but a few teams in the con­fer­ence al­ready have one loss.

The Pack­ers have plenty of time and op­por­tu­nity to es­tab­lish them­selves as con­tenders for a top seed in the NFC, but Sun­day’s loss will have them trail­ing the Fal­cons for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

“It’s a long sea­son. It’s an early game against a good team, but it’s ob­vi­ous we have some work to do,” Matthews said.

Home field ad­van­tage is a goal worth work­ing to­ward, es­pe­cially for a team that hasn’t been back to the Su­per Bowl since Fe­bru­ary of 2011. The Fal­cons, Cow­boys and Vik­ings are dome teams com­fort­able play­ing in con­trolled con­di­tions, and the Sea­hawks haven’t es­caped Lam­beau Field with a vic­tory since 1999. The Pack­ers have won play­off games away from Green Bay with Rodgers un­der cen­ter, but their re­cent record in NFC ti­tle games played on the road (1-3) speaks for it­self.

Achiev­ing the long-term goal will re­quire a week-to-week level of fo­cus and con­sis­tency. The Pack­ers have to put Sun­day night’s de­feat in the rear-view mir­ror and be­gin preparation for the Ben­gals, an un­com­mon op­po­nent that still hasn’t scored a touch­down in the 2017 sea­son. Ev­ery game will be vi­tal if the Pack­ers want to catch the Fal­cons and pave the road to the Su­per Bowl through Green Bay come Jan­uary.

JIM MATTHEWS / USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers says the Pack­ers can beat any team at Lam­beau Field, but the loss at At­lanta may keep Green Bay from host­ing mul­ti­ple play­off games.

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