Last week, the Green Bay Packers went into Philadelphia and beat Michael Vick and the Eagles. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a fantastic game. He didn’t pile up the yardage but he had three touchdowns, was very efficient and no interceptions. Most impressively, they somehow managed to produce a 123-yard game on the ground with someone named James Starks.
All season long, Green Bay’s offense has been all about Rodgers and the passing game. Have they found some legitimate balance now, or was that a flash in the pan brought about by a poor Eagles defensive performance?
The Atlanta Falcons are possibly the most below-the-radar, 13-3 top seed in a long time. They just keep on winning week after week, yet teams like New England, Pittsburgh, the New York Jets, the Packers and even the now-eliminated Saints have gotten more love as a Super Bowl contender. Atlanta has an excellent defense, a first-rate franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan, a Pro Bowl-caliber feature back in Michael Turner, one of the best receivers in the league in Roddy White and possibly the greatest tight end of all time in Tony Gonzalez. Would it kill somebody to give them a little press?
But, on the other hand, teams have done this before. A good team suddenly jumps up to 13 or 14-win territory only to get exposed come the postseason (I’m lookin’ at you, Tennessee). Are the Falcons for real or are they just the beneficiary of a weaker than normal NFC?
Atlanta was 7-1 at home this season, and looked to be rolling to an undefeated home mark before losing to New Orleans in Week 16. Included in their home wins are victories against the Packers in Week 12 and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 10. Much has been written about Matt Ryan’s record at home. In three years as a starter, he’s only lost two home games.
After winning last week, the Packers are 4-5 on the road this year. But, much like last week, I’m not convinced that the home field really makes much of a difference. If anything, playing indoors and out of the weather can only serve to help Rodgers and Green Bay’s prolific passing game.
While posting that 7-1 home record, the Falcons haven’t exactly been blowing people out. They’ve won games by two, seven, six, five and three points. While knowing how to win the close ones is invaluable come postseason time, the difference between a 13-3 top seed and 8-8 missing the playoffs is about three touchdowns over the course of the season for the Falcons. That’s a closer margin than you’d expect from a top seed.
When Green Bay came into Atlanta in Week 12, Rodgers had a big game, and the Falcons only won on a last-second field goal. Green Bay will be very confident coming into Atlanta tonight.
Case in Point(s)
I expected the Packers to score more points in Philadelphia last week against a struggling Eagles defense. Even so, they came out with a win and will face a Falcons team that held them to just 17 points two months ago. Atlanta uses a bend but don’t break defense, ranking 16th in the league in yardage allowed but fifth in points against. They give up a lot of yardage through the air. Their run defense does rank in the top 10, but they still give up over 100 yards per game, and I have to wonder if that wouldn’t be even more if the pass defense wasn’t so leaky.
The Falcons offense broke 30 points six times this season, and was consistent much of the season. They only were held under 20 points four times. They have offensive weapons and know how to use them. Atlanta can score on anyone. Defensively, they’ve only allowed opponents to top 30 twice, but the last time was back in Week 7. They’ve kept opponents under 20 points in six of their last seven games.
Still, the best friend the Falcons defense could have is for Matt Ryan to run a ball-control game and eat the clock. If that happens, this will be another low-scoring game.
The Guys Under Center
Matt Ryan is probably the most unheralded quarterback in the league. He’s not the most efficient guy, but 3,700 yards passing, 28 touchdowns and only nine interceptions is pretty good. His only other postseason experience was as a rookie, so now we really get to see if the nickname “Matty Ice” holds true.
The Packers are one of the best defenses in the league at getting to the quarterback; they had three sacks of Vick last week. Much like what I thought the Eagles would do last week, Atlanta needs to run the ball to keep Ryan from getting beaten up.
Inexplicably, Eagles coach Andy Reid chose to throw the ball nearly twice as much as run last week, and they lost because of it. I don’t expect Atlanta to make the same mistake, and a heavy dose of Turner will give Ryan a better opportunity to pick his spots instead of picking himself up off the turf.
What more can be said about Rodgers? He really is a guy who is one deep playoff run away from being seen widely as a part of the best QB in the league conversation. If he can have a big game tonight and beat the Falcons on the road, he’ll be one step closer. He had three touchdowns and a ridiculous 122.5 QB rating last week. He played great in the playoffs last season, scoring at will against Arizona, only to be let down by his defense. I expect he’ll be putting up another big game, especially against Atlanta’s soft secondary.
Who Can Run the Ball Better?
This really isn’t even a question. Michael Turner is a stud; he's big, strong, fast and raring to go. The Packers are playing some guy most people have never heard of. James Starks had a magnificent game against the Eagles last week, but what are the odds of that happening two weeks in a row. Every season, some unknown player steps up and excels in big moments. Maybe this season, that player will be Starks.
Turner rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, one of the quietest big seasons for a runner in recent memory. The Packers' leading rusher, Brandon Jackson, had 700 yards and three touchdowns. Like I said, this isn’t even a question.
Who Will Win?
I’ve been hedging back and forth with this game. But finally, it came down to the fact that I just don’t believe in Atlanta. I do think they’ll come out and run the ball, control the clock and time of possession and shorten the game.
However, that will keep the score down and increase the chances that one or two big plays from Rodgers could sneak in and steal the game. I don’t think the Packers will be able to run the ball very well, but Rodgers will pile up the passing yards and get into the end zone just enough to pull out a close win.
For Atlanta’s part, Turner will likely top 100 yards again, and Ryan will have a pretty so-so game. Somewhere in the second half, one of these quarterbacks will throw a crucial interception. I’m betting it’s Ryan.
Final Score: Packers 30, Falcons 23