Aaron Rodgers got a monkey off his back when Brett Favre got shipped to New York the summer before the 2008 season started. He got another monkey off his back when he led the Green Bay Packers to the playoffs in 2009, and another when he got his first playoff win in this year's NFL Playoffs.
So, is he going to have to wait until 2011 to climb the next hurdle, or are he and his Packers ready to shock the world?
While it's interesting to look back on Rodgers' accomplishments in a still young career, it's equally interesting to note Matt Ryan's hurdles. Ryan reached the playoffs in his first season. Hell, he threw a touchdown on his first NFL pass.
But can Ryan follow Rodgers and get his first playoff win of his career this weekend against the Packers? It's an interesting storyline, no doubt. The only problem is, as I alluded to a second ago, Rodgers simply may not be done yet.
Here's a breakdown for why the Packers and Falcons could come away with a win this weekend and reach the NFC Championship, sending either quarterback to his first championship appearance in the NFL:
Why the Green Bay Packers Will Win
I don't think I really need to keep talking about Aaron Rodgers. He brings his A-game to the big battles, and he has a huge chip on his shoulder, even if he won't admit it. To dropping to Green Bay on draft day a few years back, to the Brett Favre saga, to writers hating on him (like myself) for not winning a playoff game, Rodgers has continued to amaze and prove doubters wrong.
In other words, I'm no longer lining up to knock Rodgers down, and doubting him on a big stage is just a huge waste of time.
However, this isn't just about Rodgers. This is a very good Green Bay team that finished 10-6 largely because of a lethargic rushing game for much of the season, as well as a slew of significant injuries on both sides of the ball. I mean, really, imagine if Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley were still healthy and in the starting lineup. Even if we just stop at those two injuries, this is a completely different team.
But those guys aren't here, and this is still an elite offense with a defense that keeps silencing its critics. Clay Matthews never fails to put pressure on the quarterback, helps in run support and seems to make a big play right when the team needs it. Aiding him is one of the most under-rated secondaries in the league, with Tramon Williams (not Charles Woodson) scaring opposing passing offenses these days.
More importantly, that once grounded rush attack just found a gem in James Starks, who ran for 123 yards in the opening round, and now heads a Packers ground game that appears to be much more balanced. And after a performance like they had in Philly, that's what this team can hang their collective hats on: balance.
Rodgers takes to the air, their three backs find a way to get it done and their defense shuts opponents down.
Who wins the game?
Green Bay contained Michael Vick last week and is the top scoring defense in the league. This is all why the Packers should win, but here's how:
Green Bay's Keys to Success
1. Air it out and open up the offense
2. Establish the run
3. Get to Matt Ryan
Atlanta has a good run defense and a beatable secondary, so Green Bay should play to their strengths and attack the vulnerable part of the defense first, and then setup their average rushing attack.
While the offense is making it happen much like last week, the defense needs to hold up their end of the bargain and make Matt Ryan do something stupid. Ryan is 20-2 in his career at home, so it's more important to ruffle his feathers than to try shutting down Michael Turner.
Green Bay only lost 20-17 to this same Atlanta team earlier this season, so they know they can hang. Now it's all about executing and coming up big when the plays are needed.
If the Packers offense can meet expectations and Clay Matthews can tee-off on Ryan, Green Bay could be a game away from taking back the Lombardi Trophy.
Why the Atlanta Falcons Will Win
Firstly, they're playing at home, where (as I mentioned) Matt Ryan simply doesn't lose. Ryan has been pretty cool (that's why they call him Matty Ice) all season and has really grown over the past three years. The most beautiful part of Ryan's game is that he doesn't force the issue, and he is great at utilizing his top targets when they're needed, rather than forcing the ball in or having tunnel vision.
The name of the game for Atlanta will be ball control and limiting turnovers. The Packers are very active and flock to the ball, and they'll work relentlessly all game to put Ryan on his back. The Falcons need to work hard to ensure Ryan doesn't get rattled, while also keeping Aaron Rodgers off the field for as long as possible.
On the flip-side, Atlanta has a very solid run defense, but they'll have to raise their level of play in rushing the passer to help out their secondary at the start of this game. If this game starts the way I think it will, the Packers will attack early, and that will mean that vaunted run defense may not be tested early, which means it may not be as much of an asset as it usually is.
Atlanta has some elite talent on offense, and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez could end up being a huge mismatch for the Packers. In fact, he's going to have to be, as the Packers held star receiver Roddy White very much in check the last time these teams faced off.
Atlanta's Keys to Success
1. Make the Packers Run the Ball
2. Pound the Ball with Michael Turner
3. Limit Turnovers
Atlanta has the offense to run wild with the Packers, but that's not going to be the type of game they'll win. Atlanta has done a fantastic job of pulling out close games late, something in which Green Bay has struggled with in 2010.
If Atlanta can take care of the ball, pound the rock and keep the pressure on Rodgers, home-field advantage should do the rest.
The overall outcome here has the makings of a major push in terms of picking the game. However, as good as Atlanta is, there's something about Aaron Rodgers that tells me he won't be denied.
Verdict: Packers 27, Falcons 21