Before the season started, this Week 14 matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers was a potential NFC Championship matchup. However, the Falcons sit at 3-9 and are out of the playoffs, and Green Bay is 5-6-1 with only a slight hope of making the playoffs.
That's the only thing that will keep the Packers interested in this game: the fact there is still a small chance they can win the NFC North. They would need to win each of their last four games and some help to accomplish that, but there is still a chance.
As for the Falcons, they are playing for respect or a high draft pick in the loaded 2014 NFL draft. Their season has been surprisingly bad on both sides of the ball, and there is little chance that they won't finish in the cellar of the NFC South.
Now this doesn't mean that the Packers can walk into this game without a proper game plan. So, let's break down how Green Bay needs to game-plan for the Falcons.
The Competitive Edge
This all depends on whether or not Aaron Rodgers plays on Sunday. As of right now, Rodgers hasn't been cleared to play. The good news, however, is that Rodgers also hasn't been ruled out of Sunday's game according to Vic Ketchman of Packers.com.
While Matt Ryan hasn't been good this year for the Falcons, he is still an extremely talented quarterback. Until Rodgers is cleared to play, the edge goes to Atlanta.
The Falcons brought in Steven Jackson with hopes he'd provide a steady ground game. Injuries had ruined most of his season, but Jackson finally exploded last week to the tune of 84 rushing yards and two touchdowns. However, Eddie Lacy has been much more consistent this year and gives Green Bay the slight advantage.
Advantage: Green Bay
Both the Falcons and Packers have lost major contributors to their receiving corps. The Falcons lost Julio Jones, and the Packers lost Randall Cobb. However, the Packers still have top-tier receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones compared to only Roddy White for Atlanta.
Advantage: Green Bay
This is the most lopsided matchup for either team. Atlanta has Tony Gonzalez, who is arguably the greatest tight end to ever play the game of football. The combination of Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor and Brandon Bostick of the Packers doesn't even come close to touching Gonzalez.
After giving up seven sacks last week to the Detroit Lions, the Packers offensive line continues to regress. While the Falcons unit hasn't been great this year, it's certainly playing better right now than Green Bay's unit.
While the Packers defensive line has been quite bad over the past few weeks, the defensive line is easily the Falcons' weakest link.
Advantage: Green Bay
Both linebacker corps have the ability to be the best defensive unit for their respective teams. There is no doubting the talent for both teams at linebacker, but neither group performs at a consistent rate. What ultimately pushes the Packers ahead of the Falcons is that they have the best individual player for either unit in outside linebacker Clay Matthews.
Advantage: Green Bay
Despite starting a rookie at cornerback (Desmond Trufant), the Falcons secondary hasn't played nearly as bad as the Packers secondary. The biggest issue with both secondaries is that neither can create turnovers (both teams have six interceptions on the year). However, Atlanta still has the ability to slow down opposing quarterbacks, but the Packers secondary can't stop anyone.
Packers Offense vs. Falcons Defense
The Packers can take advantage of the Falcons defense through the air. This will obviously be tougher if Rodgers can't go, but it's still a definite possibility.
The reason for this is that Atlanta really struggles to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In fact, it has the worst pass-rush grade according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Furthermore, the Falcons have only recorded 22 sacks as a team this year, the second-worst amount in the league.
This is good news for the Packers offensive line considering it gave up seven sacks last week alone to the Lions. With the Falcons being unable to create any type of pressure, the Packers' aerial game might actually have time to set up plays this week.
Atlanta is also giving up 135.4 rushing yards per game, the third-most in the NFL. This is important because Lacy is coming off his least productive game as a pro player. He had only 16 yards on 10 carries against Detroit on Thanksgiving.
Simply put, the Packers offense has a chance to have a field day and a bounce-back performance against the Falcons defense this week.
Packers Defense vs. Falcons Offense
The past few weeks have just been awful for the Packers defense. It hasn't been able to stop the run or pass from any team, which has culminated in the fourth-worst overall defense according to Pro Football Focus.
While the Falcons offense hasn't been great this year, it actually looked like itself in Atlanta's Week 13 matchup against the Buffalo Bills. Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for over 300 yards, and Steven Jackson added two touchdowns on the ground.
This is terrible news for the Packers defense because the last thing it needs to do is face an offense that has the potential to be explosive. However, there are two ways in which the Green Bay defense can get back on track against the Falcons offense.
The first is to win in the trenches. This means the Packers defensive line has to be able to push the Falcons offensive line and create some pressure. It needs to be able to do this both against the run and when Atlanta drops back to pass.
Secondly, the Packers defense needs to continue to create turnovers to give its offense positive situations. It came up with four turnovers last week against the Lions, including two interceptions.
If the Packers defense can win in the trenches and create turnovers, it has a chance to slow down an offense this week for the first time in a long time.
With each week that passes, it seems like the Packers get worse on special teams. This isn't referring to kicker Mason Crosby or punter Tim Masthay but the coverage team.
It has simply been unable to stop anyone in the return game with former Packer Jeremy Ross the latest player to make the coverage team look foolish. As for the Falcons, they've been much better overall on special teams. They've graded as the 14th-best special teams group according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Packers, on the other hand, have the ninth-worst special teams unit per Pro Football Focus. While the Packers simply don't have the talent to win this game with their special teams, they can certainly lose to the Falcons if they continue to struggle mightily with their coverage units.
Wednesday's Injury Report
|Brandon Bostick||TE||Concussion||Full Participation|
|Evan Dietrich-Smith||OL||Knee/Ankle||Limited Participation|
|Jamari Lattimore||LB||Quadricep||Full Participation|
|Mike Neal||LB||Abdomen||Did Not Practice|
|Nick Perry||LB||Foot||Limited Participation|
|Aaron Rodgers||QB||Collarbone||Limited Participation|
|C.J. Wilson||DL||Ankle||Did Not Practice|
There is no doubt that the most exciting news on Wednesday's injury report revolves around Rodgers actually practicing. In fact, the news wasn't too bad from Rodgers' practice according to Jason Wilde of ESPN:
Rodgers looks like he has good zip on the ball as he throws in individual drills to Nelson. And yes, his right arm/collarbone are fine.— Jason Wilde (@jasonjwilde) December 4, 2013
If you look past Rodgers on the injury report, it's actually a rather encouraging report from Wednesday. There are only seven players, and of those seven, only two didn't practice at all. Getting back tight end Brandon Bostick should help the offense, and linebacker Jamari Lattimore was playing extremely well before he got injured.
While all anyone ultimately cares about is Rodgers, it's hard to overlook the fact that Green Bay is starting to get healthy. Of course, it won't matter if it can't win this week's game. If the Packers do beat the Falcons, then they could be healthy enough to make a late-season run.
The Packers Will Win If...
...They get positive quarterback play. It doesn't matter if it comes from Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien or Rodgers; the Packers simply need production from the quarterback position.
The good news for Green Bay is that it can't get any worse than it was last week. Against Detroit, the Packers only managed 139 yards through the air and failed to throw a touchdown.
Obviously, getting Rodgers back would instantly improve the play at the most important position on the field, and there's no doubt that if he plays, the Packers would be heavily favored to beat Atlanta.
However, even if Rodgers doesn't play, both Tolzien and Flynn have shown the ability to be productive. Sure, it's only come in brief flashes and hasn't been consistent, but the ability is still there.
That means the coaching staff, and specifically head coach Mike McCarthy, needs to figure out how to tap into that potential. They need to realize that they can't run the same playbook as they run with Rodgers when either Flynn or Tolzien is at the helm. It needs to be simplified with a focus on quick and short to intermediate passes.
Having success through the air is ultimately going to give the Packers the best opportunity to win.