Packers at Falcons – An Outside View of the NFC Title Game

Packers versus Falcons
Oct 30, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) makes a pass against the rush of Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (97) in the first quarter of their game at the Georgia Dome.

They say confession is good for the soul, and like most people, mine can use all the help it can get. So full disclosure: I’d be happier if I was writing a Seahawks – Packers NFC championship preview. I’d even take a Seahawks – Cowboys preview, but this is the game we’ve got. Today, a quick look at how each team got to the conference title game, then tomorrow a look at the Green Bay Packers versus Atlanta Falcons matchups.

Atlanta’s Path

The Falcons slashed their way to the NFC title game, not just against the Seahawks, but all season long. MVP candidate Matt Ryan was the turbocharged V-8 that powered this offensive machine, no doubt, but there were an awful lot of people that kept the beast going, too. Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for just under 1,600 yards rushing. That’s basically Ezekiel Elliot, but taking less punishment. The big difference is while Zeke added 363 yards receiving to his game, Freeman and Coleman chipped in a mere 883 yards through the air. That, my friends, is a devastating backfield.

We haven’t even touched on the scariest guy on the field, Julio Jones. Jones pulled in 83 balls for 1,409 yards, despite completely missing two games and being hampered by injuries for much of the season. He also averaged 17.0 yards per catch, the most since his rookie season. Throw in Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel’s combined 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Matty Ice has more toys than Santa Claus.

The defense, while not at the level of the Seahawks before the Earl Thomas injury, is better than the stats show. The Falcons ranked 27th in the league in points allowed, and 25th in yards allowed. This isn’t a knock against them; the Falcons are in the conference title game, and that’s what matters. When your offense scores 540 points, the job of the defense is to allow at least one fewer point then your team scores, and they’ve done that admirably and often. Linebackers Deion Jones and Vic Beasley are impact players. We’ll look at that impact tomorrow.


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Green Bay’s Path

Compared to the Falcons’ smooth trip along I-75 on cruise control, the Packers had to take several detours for much of their season. For one bad stretch, you’d think they they were stuck in a Yugo. The good news is, Aaron Rodgers was always there, always pushing the limits, and after an improbable eight game win streak, now has the Packers in the conference championship game.

The success of this team is Rodgers, period. Does he have weapons? Of course he does; he can’t catch his own passes, after all. Although with the arc he puts on those moonshot Hail Marys, he probably could. Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, and Randall Cobb are as dangerous a receiving trio as any in the league when healthy. The problem in the upcoming game is that word “healthy”. Nelson is likely to miss Sunday’s game; that tends to happen with broken ribs. Even without his top receiver, and a converted wideout in the backfield, Rodgers was able to defeat a much more complete team in the Dallas Cowboys. Note to Dan Quinn: under no circumstances should you think Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have enough time to win. In fact, even if you win, I wouldn’t relax until at least Monday.

The rushing game… well, when your leading rusher had 77 carries for 457 yards – and is a wide receiver by trade – you’ve got problems. The good news is that Ty Montgomery has carried the load ably, averaging just under six yards per carry. Let’s face it, his job is simply to remind the defense that the Packers just might call a running play occasionally. The offense is Rodgers.

The Green Bay defense, much like Atlanta’s, is mediocre at best. They ranked 21st in points allowed, and 22nd in yards allowed. Linebackers Nick Perry and Clay Matthews have battled injuries for most of the season, and haven’t had the impact they normally would have. Both the Packers and Falcons will depend on their offense to win, as they have all season.

The Seahawks Factor

What factor, you ask. The Hawks aren’t in this game, dummy, you say. True enough – but the Seahawks played both teams in the regular season. I’d say the week six Seahawks win was a better measure of Seattle’s capability than the playoff loss – and the Hawks only beat the Falcons by two points in that game. Matt Ryan threw for three touchdowns, all in a third quarter explosion. That game was in Seattle, and featured Earl Thomas with a crucial interception off a Richard Sherman tip. No Earl Thomas, and you give up 36 points instead of 24.

Against the Packers, Seattle was shredded 38 – 10 in the balmy environs of Lambeau Field. Rodgers was spectacular in the first half, tossing two touchdowns and going over 200 yards. That’s right, in the first half alone. Forced to play catchup, Russell Wilson continued the worst streak of his career as he threw five picks. A key difference here: no Earl Thomas. Of course, missing Earl Thomas didn’t force five interceptions, either. Seattle put up 26 and 20 points against the Falcons defense, and managed just 10 against the Pack. Based on this very flawed analysis, the edge goes to Green Bay.

The Sorta Almost Conclusion

The Falcons and Packers took very different roads to this game. Their regular seasons were mirrored by their respective postseasons as well. The Falcons cruised to an 11 – 5 record in a surprisingly non-competitive division, then handled the Seahawks comfortably. The Packers were on the brink of elimination at 4 – 6. All they did was reel off a terrific series of wins just to make it to the postseason. Once there, their performance again mirrored the regular season, as they alternated a dominant performance against the New York Giants with the last second heroics versus the Cowboys. Of course, these two teams already faced each other in a great contest this season. Tomorrow, I’ll take a closer look at that game, and a look at Sunday’s battle for the trip to Houston.

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