NFC Championship Game Preview

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Jan 15, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) reacts during the game against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional playoff game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday, January 22nd marks the NFC Championship and it has some of the highest stakes ever for a championship game. This is more about winning and losing for the Packers and Falcons; it’s about legacy. It’s been 25 years since the Georgia Dome opened, and now on Sunday it hosts one final game before the Falcons move to their new home. Ending the stadium’s run with an NFC title would mean so much to the city of Atlanta, especially considering how much disrespect the Falcons have gotten over the years.

Matt Ryan knows something about disrespect. He’s having an MVP caliber season this year, but as close back as 2015 people were questioning whether he was even a franchise quarterback, let alone an elite one. If he wins against the Packers, no matter what happens in the Super Bowl he’ll defend his spot as one of the NFL’s elite and can battle for a spot in the Hall of Fame. For a quarterback that’s flown under the radar for so many seasons, wins on the biggest stage in sports will go miles in establishing Matt Ryan’s legacy.

Unlike Ryan, Aaron Rodgers isn’t chasing a spot in the Hall of Fame. Another Super Bowl appearance can put him back in the conversation of the best of all time, especially if he has the opportunity to play and beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. To go from questions about his future early in the season all the way up to people asking if we’ll ever see someone play the position at this high a level again is quite a leap, but Rodgers has made it and all that’s left to do is stick the landing.

In the first game these two teams played, Rodgers threw 38 passes (completing 28) for 246 yards and four touchdowns and no picks, ending the game with a QBR of 125.5. This game was a turning point for Rodgers, who to that point in the season had struggled statistically and the offense was suffering because of it. After that Atlanta game, the Packers started to really get it going on offense, and since then the Packers are yet to score below 21 points in a game.

From the original game recap of that October Packers at Falcons game:

If he was ever gone, Aaron Rodgers is back. This was his best game in over a year, and he looked like one of the best quarterbacks in football this game even if his team didn’t get the win. For a team that’s been struggling on both sides of the football like the Packers, to come in to the Georgia Dome and almost beat a playoff caliber Falcons team is a really good sign for the direction of the offense. I said in the game preview that the Packers had the offensive potential to play a shootout game and they lived up to it. What’s worrisome about the offense is that it seems to be one dimensional, and while at its best the Green Bay passing attack may be one of the better ones in the NFL, it’ll be hard for them to be taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender when they can’t run the football.

Months later, the Packers still don’t have much of a running game but even my self-proclaimed genius couldn’t have predicted just how far Rodgers could carry this team through the combination of talent and sheer force of will. He’s been helped by better defensive play and increased chemistry with his receiving core but there’s no doubt that this season is what is going to cement Rodgers as one of the all-time greats.


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Ryan put up nearly identical stats in that first matchup, throwing 35 passes (completing 28) for three touchdowns and a QBR of 129.5. Unlike Rodgers however, this wasn’t exactly a turning point in his season. To that point Ryan had only two games where he logged a QBR below 100, one of them against the historic Denver defense and the other against the Chargers.

Everybody who’s turned on an NFL game this year knows about the offensive talent of the Falcons. The trio of Ryan, Jones and Freeman is only matched by Pittsburg’s Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell (sorry Cowboy’s fans, Dez only started putting it together the last few games). The Falcons offense is held together by a much less flashy player however, and that’s Alex Mack. His exceptional play has helped protect Ryan and open holes for Freeman, and he’s the reason the Falcons are PFF 6th ranked offensive line. Alex Mack and Vic Beasley are greatest assets for the Falcons on both sides of the line.

Vic Beasley is probably the most dominant player on this Falcons defense, and while he didn’t make a huge statistical impact on the game against Seattle, he dominated the patchwork Seahawks line and opened up opportunities for his other defensive lineman. Beasley logged two assisted tackles for his only stats, but against a mobile Rodgers and pass catching backs from the Packers, Beasley is going to have to continue to play at an elite level to help his defense shut the Packers down. In Beasley’s first game against the Packers he had three combined tackles and a sack and he’s only gotten better as the season has gone on.

As for the Packers, whether or not Jordy Nelson is going to play on Sunday is yet to be seen. Nelson did the workouts on practice Tuesday and on Wednesday worked with the rehab group.

The presence of Jordy Nelson seems huge for the Packers. He’s the closest thing this Packers team has to a Julio Jones and in theory he brings more balance when comparing receiving corps (though Atlanta has the edge either way). If you actually look at the numbers however, since Nelson left (11:08 in the second quarter of the Giants game; the Packers had scored nothing up to that point) the Packers have scored 72 points across the Giants and Cowboys games without him. It’s a quality the Packers and Falcons share; they don’t need their star receivers to win games. That’s both a testament to the great quarterback play and to depth at the receiver position.

So it comes down to defense, which is ironic considering these teams represent the best offenses the NFC has to offer. Both teams are going to be able to put up more than 30 points, so it’ll come down to turnovers and defense and in the final game played in the Georgia Dome the edge goes to the Atlanta Falcons.

Prediction

Green Bay Packers: 31

Atlanta Falcons: 38

Rodgers is going to have a great game no matter what, and even if Green Bay loses this game they’ve still had one of the greatest runs in NFL history. No one is going to be surprised if the Packers find a way to win, but analytically the Falcons have to be favored. Ryan is playing at an MVP level and the Falcons just have too many weapons on offense for a shabby Packers defense to stop.

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