Last offseason, our fearless leader “Jersey” Al Bracco predicted that Ryan Grant would return to the Green Bay Packers. Though the circumstances were different from what he envisioned, Al’s gut feeling came true, and Grant signed with the Packers in December as back-up insurance. This year, I am going to announce my own bold prediction that the Atlanta Falcons will be Green Bay’s most critical opponent in the coming 2013 season.
I was sizing up the schedule recently, wondering to myself what the most important game of the year would be for the Packers. Many fans have the Week 1 game against the San Francisco 49ers circled in fire engine red, but for me that game comes way too early to have a truly significant impact. As a conference opponent, it will certainly have some sway on playoff seeding; nevertheless, there is still plenty of time to recoup a loss.
That line of thinking led me to the latter portion of the season, where the playoff picture slowly starts sliding into place and a single win or loss could change things drastically.
Within the final six games, the Packers face off against all three division opponents, two conference rivals in the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys, and the lone AFC foe Pittsburgh Steelers. There is a strong chance that the Week 17 game versus the Chicago Bears will be significant when it comes to the playoffs, especially after last season. We shouldn’t soon forget that Green Bay’s loss to the Vikings in 2012 bumped them out of the #2 seed and a first-round bye.
However, my sights are set on Week 14, when the Falcons travel to Lambeau Field for a Sunday night showdown in the December cold. At that point, both teams will have played twelve games and should have a rather clear idea of their chances in their respective divisions, as well as in the NFC. The outcome of the match-up will certainly affect the urgency with which both teams approach the remaining three games.
But even beyond that, the Atlanta Falcons could be a top contender in the NFC next year. Many folks are focused on the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks as Super Bowl prospects, but as Jeff Fedotin of the National Football Post points out, Atlanta is quietly flying under the radar as the team to beat.
Aside from being in the NFC Conference Championship last season – and watching a 17-0 lead slip out of their hands – the Falcons have addressed some deficiencies in the offseason. They acquired free agent running back Steven Jackson, signed defensive end Osi Umenyiora, and saw Antonio Gonzalez put off retirement for another year.
Then there’s this interesting statistical analysis from Over The Cap in which Jason looks at where playoff teams come from. With the exception of the 2004 and 2012 New England Patriots, no other Super Bowl participant (runner-up or champion) since 2002 has made it past the Divisional Round in the following year. In fact, since the NFL went to their new playoff format eleven years ago, 25% of the Super Bowl participants were Conference losers in their previous year. Another 25% were Wildcard losers, and 30% were non-qualifiers for the playoffs.
By those odds, the Falcons have more of a reason to be hopeful than the San Francisco 49ers, the Seattle Seahawks, or even – dare I say it – the Green Bay Packers.
A lot is going to happen over the next few months, but my gut feeling is that the Atlanta Falcons will be the most important team that the Green Bay Packers face in 2013. They finally have the playoff monkey off their back, could be more improved, and have a decent shot to make it all the way. Atlanta is the most important opponent not just for the Week 14 game and playoff seeding, but also during the postseason, when the two teams could meet again for even bigger stakes.——————Follow @ChadToporski