Bring on the Falcons! The Green Bay Packers defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 21-16 in an NFC Wild Card matchup and now move on to the Georgia Dome to face the Atlanta Falcons this Saturday night in the divisional round.
One down, three to go, Packers fans.
In what is becoming a common theme in the Packers’ postseason opponents, they faced the Falcons earlier in the season. On November 28th, the Packers fell to the Falcons 20-17 on a last second field goal. It was arguably the poorest tackling day by an otherwise stout Green Bay defense as Falcons running back Michael Turner gained 110 yards on the ground and scored one touchdown. Quarterback Matt Ryan was also brilliant throwing only four incompletions out of 28 attempts.
You’ve heard it ever since the playoffs began: “Anything in can happen in the playoffs. Everyone’s record is 0-0 and it’s every team for itself.” Perhaps now more was this evident in the 7-9 NFC West champion Seahawks’ upset of the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints in Seattle last weekend.
The Packers stand one win away from their second trip to the NFC Championship Game in four years. This one will be on the road, playing either in Seattle or Chicago depending on the outcome of Sunday’s game at Soldier Field.
Breaking down the Falcons
It’s only been seven weeks since these two teams squared off so the Falcons’ tendencies should still be rather fresh in the mind of the Packers.
On offense, the Falcons boast one the premier young quarterbacks in Ryan. With a nickname like “Matty Ice” you know Ryan remains as cool as a cucumber and he has only lost two home games in his three seasons as the Falcons’ starting quarterback. Ryan remains one the most accurate quarterbacks in the NFL.
Ryan’s favorite target is wide receiver Roddy White. Once one of the NFL’s problem children, White has matured into an elite receiver that will give the Packers fits all day. He is able to get the ball downfield but still isn’t afraid to go over the top to make the catch. He is truly a complete receiver.
Don’t forget tight end Tony Gonzalez either. While his “catch” in the first matchup will forever live in Packers infamy, he’s still one of the best tight ends in the game. He’s especially dangerous in the red zone so Dom Capers must keep tabs on where number 88 is at all times inside the 20.
Of course, there’s also Turner. No. 33 bulldozed his way through the Packers defense the first go round and is one of the game’s biggest and most powerful runners. Once he gets going at full speed, often it takes two defenders to bring him down. Turner provides the Packers’ defensive line and linebackers their biggest challenge of the game.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons lack the big play ability the Packers do. Still, you shouldn’t take this unit lightly. Falcons coach Mike Smith has been smart with linebacker John Abraham and has gotten more out of his talents than any other coach before him.
Other than Abraham, the Falcons really lack that big name on defense. Even so, Smith has gotten a lot out of this unit. In November, Aaron Rodgers carved up the Falcons for 344 yards and perhaps was a goal line fumble away from getting the Packers out of the Georgia Dome with a win.
With the Packers suddenly having rediscovered their running game with James Starks, the Falcons now have to worry about a multidimensional Packers offense. Atlanta’s defensive line may not be quick enough to stop the speedy Starks and their secondary is definitely questionable against the Packers’ plethora of weapons.
When the Packers have the ball….
The Green Bay Packers offense: fair and balanced.
With the emergence of Starks last week, the Packers have finally achieved that precious run-pass balance on offense. That said, the Falcons now have a full game tape on Starks and you know Smith and company will be game planning to stop the run. However, should Starks break a few long runs early look for Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy to continue ride the “hot hand” as he did in Philadelphia this week.
What about Rodgers and the receivers? Well, for one the dropped passes will need to stop. Should the Falcons succeed in shutting Starks down, the Packers will have to take to the air once again if they want any hope of keeping up with the Falcons offense. If the game becomes a shootout, the Packers’ receivers must eliminate the mental mistakes plaguing them lately if they want their season to continue.
When the Falcons have the ball….
Turner, Turner, Turner.
The Packers have to do a much better job of shutting down the Atlanta rushing attack. Turner is an absolute beast to bring down, but the Packers have the strength on their front line and linebackers to do it. You’re not going to knock him down in the backfield too often so keeping to 1-3 yard gains would be a victory for the Packers.
In the pass defense, the Packers have to find a way to do what so many other teams have found impossible to do and that is to find a way to get inside Ryan’s head and rattle him. A few early hits, if not sacks, by Clay Matthews and the linebackers would go a long way towards accomplishing that daunting task.
If the Packers can take away White, which I easily could see happening, they can force Ryan to spread the ball around to his other receivers. Gonzalez will be another target and the Packers can’t forget about Michael Jenkins either. Still, Ryan and White have that special chemistry and eliminating White’s threat would help the Packers’ cause tremendously.
Three keys to the game:
Hang onto the darn ball! You hear me, James Jones?
Jones’ drops last week came within a whisker of being the fatal blow to the Packers championship hopes last week and the Packers likely won’t be as likely to escape a second occurrence. It’s entirely possible that McCarthy will sit Jones a majority of the game and go with Jordy Nelson in the No. 3 receiver slot.
1. Drop the drops
To be clear, I am not totally singling out Jones either. Drop balls have been an issue all season with the Packers receivers who very often have some of the best hands in the league. Stop thinking touchdown before the ball. Think “catch” then “touchdown.”
2. Thaw Matty Ice
I don’t think I can say much more about Ryan and the threat he provides, but it is so crucial to the Packers if they have any hopes of advancing to the NFC title game.
So I’ll just repeat what I said earlier: Rattle him early and often.
3. Manage the game clock
Yes, I’m going to knock McCarthy again. The world has ended.
The clock management at the end of the first half of the Eagles game was atrocious. The Packers had a chance to put an early kill shot on Philadelphia and McCarthy blew it. Again.
The Falcons are a much better team than the Eagles so if McCarthy finds himself in a similar position with his team up going into the half, he has got to watch the game clock and be smarter.
If not, I’ll echo Jersey Al and say he needs some help.
Falcons 28, Packers 24 in OT
I know it’s taboo to pick against the team in the playoffs but hear me out.
The Packers all last week had to hear about how great Mike Vick was and how they were going to have trouble shutting him down. Come Sunday, they shut him down.
This week, the Falcons are hearing how great the Packers and Rodgers are and it’s THEM that is the No. 1 seed not the Packers. They will be fired up for this game. Fans are already planning a Packers/Bears NFC title game. Did they not see the Saints game last week or not remember Super Bowl XXXII?
I hope like hell I am wrong. This season has been an absolute blast and I would love it to continue all the way to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV. Still, it’s my job here to be objective and not look at things through green and gold glasses.
If the season ends here, however, it’s still been a memorable one. The Packers overcame so much adversity and still found its way to be on the brink of a Super Bowl trip.
It says here the Packers fall victim to the new overtime rules by getting a field goal first, but the the Falcons win on a TD pass by Ryan.
Then again, who knows?
Any given Sunday.——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke