With all the hype going on about the surprise Seahawks and division rematches, fans don’t seem to be focusing as much on a matchup that could definitely steal the show. The Packers and their revamped defense head to the Georgia Dome and face Matty Ice and the Falcons.
Matt Ryan has blossomed this year into a clutch quarterback, and although he may not be considered one of the league’s elite, he is certainly on that path. His quest is to out-duel Aaron Rodgers, a difficult feat.
The way the Packers beat the Eagles last week was by blitzing Michael Vick and containing him just enough to win. This week, they may not be so lucky, and they probably won’t see an Akers-like performance out of Falcons kicker Matt Bryant. Both bird teams ran very high-octane offenses and solid defenses. The difference with Atlanta? They come up big when it matters most.
Atlanta has delivered the kinds of performances this year that have them looking like a championship team. Both Matts have made clutch plays to lead them to wins over the Saints, 49ers, Bengals, Ravens, Buccaneers twice and yes, the Packers.
Sure, one could argue that the Falcons could easily be 6-10 if those games don’t go in their favor. But you have to realize two key things. One, the Falcons could easily be 15-1 as well. An overtime loss to the Steelers and a late game loss to the Saints could have easily turned in their favor. And two, they did win those games.
Who will advance to the NFC Championship?
Atlanta doesn’t have the look of a 6-10 team. They’re for real, and they’ve showed why they can win any game on any given night—especially at home.
The blitzing scheme that Dom Capers showed against the Eagles was perfect in breaking up the rhythm of Vick, but it may not do as well against Ryan. Not taking anything away from Vick, but Ryan excels at making throws under pressure and is a very smart quarterback.
Atlanta’s best shot to do what Philadelphia couldn’t lies in Ryan’s arm and his receivers. The Eagles live and die by the big play, but the Falcons are more balanced with short throws and downhill running by Michael Turner. Ryan is going to have to keep his cool when the blitz comes, especially since Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson will be blanketing his options in the secondary.
Since Turner isn’t much of a pass catcher, that makes Tony Gonzalez the biggest key to victory for the Falcons. The future Hall of Famer will be a security blanket for Ryan, even though he usually doesn’t need one. Gonzalez can be used for checkdown throws or even as an extra blocker if Ryan sees a blitz coming. It’s also huge that the Falcons have Turner, who needs to have a solid day in order for the Atlanta offense to run smoothly.
In a year where Green Bay basically played without a running game, they might have finally established one in rookie back James Starks. Injured earlier this year, he took 23 carries for 123 yards against the Eagles.
It’s hard to argue that Starks will crumble under playoff pressure as a rookie based on those numbers, but we’ve only seen a sample size of him so far. He doesn’t need to be an every-down back with Brandon Jackson in on third downs and John Kuhn doing the goal-line work, but it seems like they want to rely on him heavily, and I don’t feel too confident in his abilities against the Atlanta defensive line.
Green Bay’s best shot at this one is sending it through the air. Rodgers has a plethora of receiving options. The run game is going to be a key to opening up the play action for Rodgers, but if they do, he should have no problem sending that ball to any of his four main wide receivers.
All of them can go for the home run pass, but a close eye should be kept on Donald Driver. His toughness and ability to make plays anywhere on the field should open things up for Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Oh, and the Packers have some guy named Greg Jennings, too.
The offensive line is going to play a huge part in this game, and Atlanta has the edge in that category. They’ve kept Ryan on his feet for most of the year, while Rodgers has dealt with concussions at times. If John Abraham and company can bust through the line, it’s going to be a long day for Rodgers.
In the end, it should be a shootout. These two quarterbacks are going to show they are the masterminds and decode the defenses that are thrown at them.
I’d say Ryan ends up with two touchdown passes—neither of them to Roddy White. Williams and Woodson will be so worried about him, and Michael Jenkins will step up and make plays, catching a deep ball for a score. Gonzalez should score too, and Turner will have his fair share as well.
On the Green Bay side, Rodgers should have a field day and throw TDs to all of his receivers with a J in their name (Jennings, Jones, Jordy). John Kuhn will punch in one as well, but they will come up short, as the Atlanta offense overpowers them and Ryan shows why he has ice in his veins. The Falcons’ strong running game gives them the edge.
Prediction: Atlanta 34, Green Bay 28