Nine months after beating the top NFC seed handily in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Green Bay Packers return to the Georgia Dome this Sunday night to face the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers enter the game on a ten game winning streak dating back to last season and are currently tied with the Detroit Lions for the NFC North lead at 4-0. The Falcons come in struggling and are one of the NFC’s most enigmatic teams at 2-2.
Last Week in Review
The Packers continued to roll, defeating the hapless Denver Broncos 49-23 at Lambeau Field. The Falcons meanwhile barely held on after blowing an early lead against the Seattle Seahawks 30-28. The Falcons are currently third in the NFC South behind New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
Key Falcons players
QB Matt Ryan
Entering 2011, if there was one quarterback who was the next to see a rise to superstardom like Aaron Rodgers had last year, it was Matt Ryan. Despite the blowout loss at home in the playoffs, the foundation had been laid for the Falcons to be dominant for years to come.
So far, that dominance has gotten off to a sluggish start. Ryan is under constant pressure and has been making uncharacteristic mistakes. While he is completing 62.2% of his passes, he has 6 TDs against 4 INTs.
That’s not to say Ryan doesn’t have what it takes. He has very strong leadership abilities and has a very even keeled personality. Ryan is also accurate and very smart with the ball. If his offensive line can keep him upright, Ryan still can very easily become an elite quarterback.
WR Roddy White
He is the Greg Jennings to Ryan’s Rodgers. Every time he has the ball, he is a threat to take the ball to the house.
Even though the Falcons borderline mortgaged the franchise to move up and draft Julio Jones, White is still the star of this receiving corps and will be a player the Packers have to keep an eye on.
LB John Abraham
Even though he marched out of the Georgia Dome victorious in January, Rodgers can’t be too happy Abraham stole his championship belt when the linebacker sacked him early in the game.
That said, Abraham is the heart and soul of the Falcons defense. It’s unfortunate there isn’t a whole lot more talent around him because Abraham could be one of the best LBs in the league. He could provide a thin Packers offensive line trouble in keeping him away from Rodgers.
DE Ray Edwards
If there is one thing Edwards knows, it’s how to get to Aaron Rodgers.
During his time with the Minnesota Vikings, Edwards along with Jared Allen gave a developing Rodgers fits his first two years in the league and even sacked Rodgers twice in the Packers blowout win in the Metrodome last season.
He has enough to speed to get to a mobile quarterback, so the Packers offensive line has got to keep an eye on No. 93.
To win, the Packers must….
On offense: Mike McCarthy always says he likes to ride the hot hand and there is not a hotter hand in the NFL right now than Aaron Rodgers. The Super Bowl XLV MVP has somehow managed to take his game to another level and currently seems to be running away with the race for NFL MVP.
McCarthy will sprinkle in doses of James Starks and a hopefully healthy Ryan Grant to keep the Falcons defense on their toes so Rodgers can put them on their heels. Look for Jennings and Donald Driver to have a big game and don’t count out the emerging Jordy Nelson as well.
On defense: This might finally be the week the Packers pass rush comes full circle. With a suddenly weak offensive line, we could finally see Clay Matthews get going. The Claymaker has been facing a lot of double teams but has been opening up opportunities for others. Still, it would be nice to see Matthews return to his dominant form of last season.
Look also for Morgan Burnett to continue to emerge in Nick Collins’ absence. He so far has shown a knack for finding the ball and if the Packers pass rush can get to Ryan, Burnett can find a way to make the turnover.
To win, the Falcons must….
On offense: Protect Ryan. As the Packers can attest to in 2009, your franchise quarterback can do no good if he is constantly on his back. The Packers will be sending pressure from all angles so the offensive line needs to be ready.
They could also get the ball more to Tony Gonzalez. Arguably one of the best tight ends ever to play the game, Gonzalez is still lethal in the passing game and could give the Packers linebackers fits at the line of scrimmage.
On defense: Pray you find a way to stop Rodgers. They couldn’t in January and no other team has been able to so far. It seems highly unlikely this unit will be the one to step up and do it.
Instead of going after Rodgers themselves, they could try to blanket his receivers. Yet given the depth the Packers have on offense, it’s another gargantuan task that the Falcons just don’t seemingly have the talent to do so.
Storylines to watch
1. Revisiting January: There’s no doubt Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth will be referring to that game often during NBC’s broadcast Sunday night, but McCarthy needs to let his players know that those kinds of blowouts are rare in the NFL and the Falcons are more talented than they showed last season.
Basically he needs to say, “OK you did it once, but lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. Let’s see if you can do it again.”
2. Stop the Falcons early: Drunk on revenge, the Falcons likely will come out of the gates fired up and ready to bury the defending world champions. It is key that the Packers get on a roll early to bring Atlanta down to earth. The crowd will also be very loud, so a couple quick scores by the Packers would go a long way towards shutting them up.
3. Starks or Grant? The beat goes on in one of the most intriguing battles on the roster of the Packers. With Grant sidelined last week, Starks showed marked improvement. While he still suffers from “happy feet” syndrome, Starks is learning to time his cuts perfectly and when to hit the hole.
With Edwards anchoring that defensive line, the two backs will have their work cut out for them.
Packers 33, Falcons 24
It won’t be a blowout again. The Falcons are too talented and they will be too fired up to let that happen again. Still, the Packers have far too many weapons and thanks to the selling of the house to draft Julio Jones, the Falcons defense remains weak and the secondary won’t be able to shut down Rodgers’ arsenal of talent.——————
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