It’s Day 2 of NFL Divisional Round predictions, and today is definitely the toughest one of them all! We have two teams that are both equally talented, both in skill and in youth. That being said, let’s get to the doozy of an analysis that is Packers vs. Falcons.
The Atlanta Falcons simply had an amazing season. Coach Mike Smith led the team to its second playoff berth in three years with him at the helm, and this year was the best. The Falcons earned the top seed in the NFC with a 13-3 record, finishing ahead of the defending (well, not so much anymore) Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in the NFC South. Let’s analyze that record now.
First off, let me start by saying that save for the Carolina Panthers, who finished 2-14, the NFC South was an extremely tough division this season. Three of four teams finished with 10 wins or more, and it came down to the wire to the very end. The Falcons didn’t let that deter them, as they finished 5-1 against teams in their division.
Yet, let’s look at the wins outside of the division. Yes, all eight of them. Three came against teams that were never truly contenders at any point, and five came against teams that were either major contenders (i.e. Baltimore) or teams that contended in a bad division (case in point, the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks).
However, the one Falcon win that stands out to me occurred in Week 12. It was a home game against the Green Bay Packers that the Falcons ended up winning by a field goal in the final seconds, with a final score 20-17.
I know that you can’t really judge a season series, but the Falcons are a great team on offense as well as on defense. They outscored opponents 414-288 and I have no doubt that they’ll use playing at home to their advantage to send the Packers home.
Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers have a lot in common as quarterbacks. Both have been starters for three seasons, both have multiple options at receiver and most importantly, both have bright futures.
In 2010, Matt Ryan came off a sophomore slump, for lack of better word, and set career highs in all major categories. He finished the season with 3,705 pass yards, 28 touchdown passes (just as many as Rodgers) and only nine interceptions, with a passer rating of 91.
Still, while this quarterback battle is sure to be one for the ages, I have to give the edge to Aaron Rodgers and let me tell you why. Matt Ryan has always been a starter, but Rodgers had three years backing up and learning from the greatest quarterback of all time in Brett Favre. With a mentor like that, it’d be hard not to be amazing once you got the opportunity to start.
I know I was quick to write off the Green Bay running game last week, but James Starks surprised us all with 123 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles. This week, he faces a tougher squad in Atlanta’s 10th-ranked rushing defense and it will certainly be interesting to see how he fares in the second straight road game.
On Atlanta’s end, we have Pro Bowl running back Michael “The Burner” Turner. Like Matt Ryan, he came back from an off 2009 and had a great 2010. He didn’t match the career highs he set in 2008, but was still good for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns. Turner is the perfect balance of finesse and power, and should give the Packers’ 18th-ranked rushing defense a hard time.
Besides Turner, the team has a great third down back in Jason Snelling. This man ran for 324 yards on the season, but also had 303 receiving yards! He’s simply unpredictable. Will he run? Will he receive a screen pass and wreak havoc? Either way, his presence is a surefire difference maker, especially in the playoffs. That being said, my decision is easy.
As was evidenced in their win against the Eagles, the Packers receiving game is very one-sided and thus the running game was established early en route to a 21-16 victory. Yet, at the same time, they did a good job of keeping DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin in check. In Atlanta, I don’t think they’ll be so lucky, for many reasons. Let’s look at stats first.
Three-time Pro Bowler Roddy White, who just improves season after season, headlines Atlanta’s receiving corps. In 2010, he made a career high 115 catches for 1,389 yards (another career high) and 10 touchdowns.
Complementing White are two great possession receivers in Michael Jenkins and veteran Brian Finneran. Jenkins finished the season with 41 catches for 505 yards and two touchdowns. Finneran had only 19 catches for 166 yards and three touchdowns, but was a great blocker for the rest of the offense.
At tight end, what more can be said about future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez that hasn’t been said already? Even at age 34, this man continues to be an effective and seemingly unstoppable force at his position. He finished 2010 with 70 catches for 656 yards and six touchdowns, not showing any signs of slowing down.
Yet, as many of you comment on my articles, statistics are meaningless. In this case, I 100 percent agree with you. The Green Bay receiving defense finished sixth in the NFL, not to mention fifth in passing defense, but I’m convinced that Atlanta will beat these defenses not on talent, but on size.
First, let’s take a look at the sizes of the main Philadelphia receivers Green Bay faced last weekend:
Desean Jackson: 5’10”, 175 pounds
Jeremy Maclin: 6’0”, 198 pounds
Jason Avant: 6-0”, 212 pounds
Brent Celek: 6’4”, 255 pounds.
Now, let’s have a look at how the Atlanta receivers match up:
Roddy White: 6’0”, 212 pounds
Michael Jenkins: 6’4”, 217 pounds
Brian Finneran: 6’5”, 210 pounds
Tony Gonzalez: 6’5”, 243 pounds.
Let me give you an idea of the size advantage these men have against Green Bay’s defense. AJ Hawk, easily the Packers’ best coverage linebacker, is only 6’1”. In the secondary, Charles Woodson also tops out at 6’1” and safety Nick Collins is only 5’11”. With the perfect combination of size and speed, the Falcons should be a force to be reckoned with in the passing game.
On paper, the Packers have the clear advantage. Their defense finished fifth in the NFL, while that of the Falcons finished 16th. Still, let’s take a look at the Atlanta squad.
Mike Smith employs a 4-3 defense, and the front four are a very talented group. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux does a great job of creating pressure on the quarterback, which is where defensive end John Abraham comes in. In 2010, Abraham had 13 sacks, up from last year’s low total of 5.5, and showed that he is still a force at age 32.
The linebacking unit consists of three coverage men, led by veteran Mike Peterson. Working with him are two rising stars in Curtis Lofton and rookie Sean Weatherspoon. Lofton turned a lot of heads this season with his 118 tackles and has a great future ahead of him.
Weatherspoon turned in a fine rookie campaign with 42 tackles. I know that seems low for a first-round draft pick, but he’s young and still has a lot to learn at the professional level.
The secondary is led by veteran corner Dunta Robinson, whose first season in Atlanta was underwhelming as he only registered 55 tackles. Yet, his teammates in the secondary helped him.
Left cornerback Brent Grimes finished the season with 87 tackles and five interceptions, and the safety position had a deadly tandem in William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. Like Grimes, Moore also had five interceptions, not to mention 72 tackles and DeCoud helped out with 72 tackles of his own.
Still, as impressed as I am with Atlanta’s defense, it’s still a very young squad. A lot of the players are still learning about the game, not to mention how to play with one another. Green Bay’s, on the other hand, has been playing together for a very long time and I think that will only help them.
So, after breaking down every aspect of this game, it’s time for the score prediction. As even as this game is, I have to go with my gut solely on the fact that this team has home field advantage, indoors no less!
Score Prediction: Falcons 31, Packers 27