This Saturday's contest between the number one seeded Atlanta Falcons and the battle tested Green Bay Packers will send one very deserving team to the NFC Championship.
While the Falcons have a well rounded team coming off a bye week, it's difficult to count out the Packers who are riding a wave of momentum following their impressive Wild Card victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
In order for the Packers to punch their ticket for the NFC Championship, here are five things that I believe will help extend the Packer season.
#1. Rest Vs. Rust?
While nobody will ever turn down the opportunity to have a bye week entering the playoffs, it isn't out of the realm of possibilities that the week off could lead to a slow start for the Falcons. On the other hand, Packers have been in "playoff mode" for nearly a month.
Matt Ryan is still a young QB with limited playoff experience (at least less than Aaron Rodgers). A slow start for the Falcons' offense could play a key role if the Packers are able to establish an early rhythm and put up some points.
One key to the Falcon offense is their strong running attack with pro-bowl RB Michael Turner. An early lead for the Packers could help limit the rushing attack and put the Packer defense in attack mode.
#2. Dome Field Advantage or Favorable Conditions?
While the Packers of the mid to late 90's seemed to wither inside domes, this Packer team seems much better suited to play indoors with their vertical passing game and talented receiving core. Where windy conditions in Philly proved challenging for both teams, the Georgia Dome will not provide any hindrance on the Packer passing attack.
Not only that, but the Packers have already visited the Georgia Dome this year in a close loss to Atlanta in Week 12 of the regular season. They are familiar with the surroundings and have plenty of experience battling crowd noise with regular visits to the Metrodome in Minneapolis to play heated rivalry games against the Vikings.
I think in this case, home field advantage isn't such a large factor for the game.
#3. Staying Balanced
In the first match-up, QB Aaron Rodgers was the leading rusher for the Green Bay Packers in what turned out to be one of their least productive days rushing the ball of the season. James Starks had yet to play a down in the NFL and the Packers featured a game plan heavy on passes.
Fast forward to now and the Packers have demonstrated a much more balanced attack on offense of late. In their last four games, the Packers have averaged 32 rush attempts per game. And everyone is now aware of the rookie RB from Buffalo that torched the Philadelphia defense for 123 yards last week.
But this isn't to suggest the Packers are "suddenly" a balanced team just because James Starks had a good game. Again, going back to the New England game and since, I credit Mike McCarthy for calling a much more balanced attack during this stretch run. This will definitely be a new wrinkle the Falcons didn't see during the first game.
That lack-luster rushing attack also had numerous troubles on short-yardage plays that resulted in failed QB sneaks complete with fumbles and other plays being stopped short. All because the running game was still finding its way.
This directly resulted in less points for the Packers and an area that McCarthy and his staff have seemingly remedied in recent weeks. Hopefully those situations won't keep points off the board this time around.
#4. Special Teams Hitting Their Stride
In their last two games, the Packers have faced some of the league's best return units in Chicago and Philadelphia. The Packers' special team units have done a good job in nearly all facets limiting returns with good coverage and directional kicking.
The mid-season Packers were dealing with injuries on a regular basis which meant new faces on the special teams. Injuries have not plagued the Packers for several weeks which means more consistent work for the special teams lineups.
Hopefully, they'll continue their solid play as we all remember the huge return at the end of regulation compounded by a personal foul penalty that essentially put the Falcons in position to kick a game-winning, last second field goal after moving the football about 20 yards.
If the Packers make a good tackle and hold the Falcons as time runs out, perhaps the Packers come out on top in the first game.
#5. Playing Perfect
The Falcons are a solid team to be sure. But one of the key reasons for playing winning football in 2010 was their discipline. They limit their turnovers and penalties and force their opponents into mistakes with their patient ways on the football field.
Having now witnessed and fallen victim to this first hand, I believe the Packers better understand what it takes to beat the Falcons. This will mean the Packers must take care of the football and that includes catching it.
Numerous big plays have been literally dropped by the Packer receiving core. Not to mention a few fumbles as well (ahem, James Jones in both cases). Hitting big plays could be a huge factor in forcing Matt Ryan to play from behind and limit Michael Turner's success.
The opportunities will be there as we all know McCarthy and QB Aaron Rodgers like to take their shots down the field.
It would be a pleasant surprise to see the Green Bay Packers make it through a game without a dropped pass or fumble.
The End Result?
These five elements give me reason to like the Packers' chances on Saturday night. At any rate it should prove to be a highly entertaining match-up in what may be a glimpse of a playoff rivalry for the next several years.
Quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are two of the best young QBs in the NFL and appear to be on track for many playoff appearances in the years ahead.
The Packers boast a defense playing with confidence that tackles well (an area they struggled with against Atlanta back in November).
While the Falcons play a good brand of defense as well to pair with a good running game and the dynamic passing tandem of Ryan and WR Roddy White.
I look for the Packers to come out on top of what again will be a close game but I look for the Packers to capitalize in areas where they fell short the first time around.