NFL Playoff Preview - Green Bay (11-6) at Atlanta (13-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's time to put up or shut up for the NFC's top-seeded team, the Atlanta Falcons, when they square off with the Green Bay Packers Saturday night in an NFC Divisional Playoff from the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta earned home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs and captured its first NFC South title since the 2004 campaign with a 13-3 record in the regular season. After getting a week off to determine who their opponent would be in the second round of the playoffs, the Falcons discovered Green Bay punched its ticket to Georgia after a big win at Philadelphia last weekend.
On top of planning for the Packers, who recorded a 21-16 win over the Eagles during Wild Card weekend, Atlanta has been dodging snowflakes. Several schools, government buildings and roads were closed this week due to the heavy accumulation produced by a winter storm, but it hasn't stopped the Falcons in their preparation.
"Our guys did a great job of carpooling and picking each other up," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "We had all but two [players in]. We actually tried to get two of them picked up but the roads were closed. They weren't letting anyone in."
Sack leader and defensive end John Abraham was able to get rescued after the car he was driving in skidded off the road and into a ditch. Abraham and the driver were fine, and the big defender was picked up by fellow end Kroy Biermann.
Smith is counting on Abraham to spark his defense against one of the top quarterbacks in the league in Aaron Rodgers. Abraham had the only sack of Rodgers during a 20-17 victory over the Packers at the Georgia Dome back on Nov. 28 and finished the regular season with a team-high 13.
Abraham, however, is one of the few veterans on this young Falcons squad that's led by third-year quarterback Matt Ryan, who sparked the team to a 7-1 home record this season and is 20-2 all-time under center at the Georgia Dome. Ryan finished the season with a career-high 3,705 yards through the air and 28 touchdowns passes to nine interceptions. He also tied Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the most regular-season wins by a quarterback (33) in his first three years since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Ryan will be making his second playoff appearance and was outdueled by Arizona's Kurt Warner in a 30-24 loss back in 2008. He was 26-of-40 for 199 yards with two touchdown passes and a pair of interceptions in that one. Ryan's a bit older and wiser now, and hopes the experience pays off.
Running back Michael Turner is the other Atlanta weapon hoping to rebound from that last postseason appearance against the Cardinals, as he ran for just 42 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Expect the Falcons to utilize Turner early to set up the pass attack.
Pass defense was Green Bay's calling card in the win over the Eagles. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers probably expected to see a lot more of Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy, who was held to 46 yards on 12 carries, but his main concern, however, was devising a plan to stop elusive quarterback Michael Vick.
On the very first play of the game, Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop blind- sided the left-handed Eagles quarterback for a sack and set the tone for the rest of the evening. Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive end Jarius Wynn each contributed a sack of their own.
"We've had a few ups and downs on this roller coaster of a year. But hopefully we're peaking at the right time," Matthews stated. "Three wins in a row, all playoff-like environments in which we need to win or else we go home. We've got another one on the road now in a very hostile environment. We feel good about where we're at. You can say we're dangerous, but we're just playing at the level we know how."
It was the Packers' first postseason win on the road since a 23-10 victory at San Francisco in the 1997 NFC Championship Game.
If there was one spot the Packers needed to work on entering last Sunday's showdown, it was the running game. James Starks alleviated those worries, however, by grinding out a franchise rookie playoff-record 123 yards on 23 carries to take the pressure off of Rodgers and give the team some balance. Rodgers was able to win his first career postseason game by completing 18-of-27 passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns.
Green Bay was a nightmare for the Eagles on third down as well, converting 8- of-13 opportunities. It was the team's second-best output on third down this season, behind only an impressive 10-of-15 clip against Dallas back in Week 9.
Rodgers didn't throw any interceptions, but did have one of Green Bay's two lost fumbles. He didn't get the win in the Packers' first meeting with Atlanta this season, but was able to throw for 344 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. His favorite target all season, wide receiver Greg Jennings, led the way with 119 yards on five catches in that contest.
Expect Green Bay to stick with the aerial assault on Saturday, while sprinkling in a mix of Starks and teammate Brandon Jackson out of the backfield.
The Packers and Falcons have faced off twice previously in postseason play, with Green Bay earning a 37-20 home win in a 1995 NFC First Round Playoff and Atlanta stunning the Packers in Wisconsin by a 27-7 score in the opening round of the 2002 NFC Playoffs. That latter game marked the first postseason loss at Lambeau Field in the Packers' history.
Atlanta's three-point decision over the Packers in Week 12 evened the regular- season series between the teams at 12-12. That was Green Bay's first visit to the Georgia Dome since a 33-25 triumph during the 2005 season.
Smith is 1-1 in his career against the Packers, while Green Bay's Mike McCarthy owns the same record versus both Smith and Atlanta. McCarthy improved to 2-2 in the postseason with last weekend's win, while Smith lost his only prior playoff game as a head coach.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Starks (101 rushing yards in the regular season) took pressure off of Rodgers and made McCarthy's plan of running the football a major success last week. The sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Buffalo broke the previous Green Bay rookie record for rushing yards in a playoff game, as Travis Williams had 88 yards against the Los Angeles Rams back on Dec. 23, 1967. Starks' road to glory was a bumpy one, however, as he missed the first 11 games of the season due to a hamstring injury and appeared in just three games prior to Sunday's breakout. Rodgers (3,922 passing yards, 28 TD, 11 INT) did just enough to earn his first playoff win, completing 18-of-27 passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns. He was 28-of-42 for 422 yards with four scoring passes and an interception and a lost fumble in last year's 51-45 overtime loss at Arizona in the NFC Wild Card round. Rodgers set an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in his first two playoff starts, and is the first quarterback to throw for that many scoring strikes in a two-game span in the playoffs since New Orleans' Aaron Brooks tossed six from 2000-01. Rodgers can spread the ball around with Jennings (76 receptions, 1,265 yards, 12 TD), who was held to one catch for eight yards against the Eagles, Donald Driver (51 receptions, 4 TD), James Jones (50 receptions, 5 TD), Jordy Nelson and tight end Andrew Quarless all options for Saturday's game.
The Eagles weren't expecting Starks to explode for more than 100 yards rushing last weekend, so it's very important for Atlanta defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder to make sure his front line and linebackers are aware of the possibility of another breakout performance. That being said, the Falcons must also apply pressure up front on Rodgers, who can light it up at any time. Abraham (41 tackles, 13 sacks) and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (27 tackles, 4 sacks) are Van Gorder's best pass rushers and defensive end Biermann (36 tackles, 3 sacks) should see one-on-one matchups with Abraham getting double-teamed and finding max protection on his side. Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton (118 tackles, 2 sacks) will be calling the schemes and can't get caught off guard. The Falcons were 10th in the league during the regular season with 105.9 rushing yards allowed per game, while ranking 22nd in passing yards surrendered (226.6 ypg). Defensive backs Brent Grimes (87 tackles) and William Moore (71 tackles) finished tied for the team lead in interceptions with five apiece. Getting a few of those on Saturday will make Atlanta's chances of winning even greater. Grimes was first on the team with 23 passes defensed as well. Cornerback Dunta Robinson (55 tackles, INT) and Grimes still figure to have their hands full with Green Bay's solid quartet of wideouts, however.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
If the Falcons played at home every time, they might be Super Bowl champions with ease. They are 20-4 there under Smith and hope the bye week was more than enough to heal and prepare for Green Bay's relentless defense. Turner (1,371 rushing yards, 12 TD) had 110 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in the first meeting, while Ryan (3,705 passing yards, 28 TD, 9 INT) and the Falcons finished 15th in the league with an average of 222.9 passing per game this season. Ryan said this week he started preparing for the Packers right after they won, and complimented Green Bay for its ability to get up front and wreak havoc against opposing quarterbacks. He can only hope he can keep the ball out of the Packers' hands, especially the secondary. Ryan's exploits helped Atlanta capture the NFC's top seed for the first time since 1980, while the Falcons are 3-1 all-time at home in the postseason. Atlanta went 7-1 at the Georgia Dome in the regular season and is 20-2 at home with Ryan under center over the past three years. On top of having home-field advantage, Ryan alluded to how important it will be to get the running game going on Sunday. He enjoys playing in a balanced offense and does his part, as do wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. White (115 receptions, 1,389 yards, 10 TD) set club records for most receptions and receiving yards in a season, while Gonzalez (70 receptions, 6 TD) was second on the team in catches.
Green Bay came up with several big stops against the Eagles, and cornerback Tramon Williams (57 tackles, 6 INT) sealed the win with an interception of Vick in the closing seconds, after Philadelphia was able to creep back after the Packers grabbed a seemingly-comfortable lead. All-Pro cornerback Charles Woodson (92 tackles, 2 INT) recorded a team-high six tackles last weekend and will team up with Williams in hopes of containing the Ryan-to-White connection. White was held to 49 yards on five catches in the first meeting with Green Bay this season, while Gonzalez led the victors with 51 yards and a touchdown on six catches. His score came on a drive after Rodgers fumbled at the goal line. Capers' 3-4 scheme is vulnerable to the run, but didn't have to worry during the Wild Card round since the Eagles abandoned that aspect after falling behind early. Capers has the players to stop Turner, who's one of the best backs in the league. Matthews (60 tackles, 14 sacks) will be counted on to disrupt Atlanta's timing by applying pressure up front, while inside linebackers A.J. Hawk (111 tackles, 3 INT) and Bishop (103 tackles, 3 sacks) will be busy for a Green Bay defense that finished 18th in the NFL with an average of 114.9 rushing yards allowed per game this season. Wynn, Matthews and Bishop each posted a sack in Philadelphia, while defensive end Cullen Jenkins (18 tackles, 7 sacks) returned from a four-game absence last week.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby didn't have to make any field goal attempts last week, but did connect on all three PAT tries. Crosby booted 8-of-10 field goals between 40-49 yards in the regular season and will be playing indoors Saturday night, making his chances of success even greater. Nelson and Sam Shields had 22 and 21 kickoff returns, respectively, during the regular season, but the Packers averaged just 14.7 yards on four kickoff returns in Philadelphia. Starks, Woodson and Shields each had a return. Williams returned a pair of punts for a total of 18 yards last week and had 41 runbacks for 326 yards in the regular season. Punter Tim Masthay posted 43.9 yards per kick in the 16-game regular season and averaged 36.5 yards on four booms against the Eagles.
Falcons kicker Matt Bryant also nailed 8-of-10 tries between 40-49 yards during the regular season and connected on his only try of 50 or more yards. He kicked the second-longest game-winning field goal in NFL history after splitting the uprights on a 62-yarder against Philadelphia in 2006, while then with Tampa Bay. Punter Michael Koenen averaged 40.7 yards on 74 punts this season. Eric Weems is a dangerous return man and had 40 kick runbacks for an average of 27.5 yards. He also posted 12.8 yards on 18 punt returns and scored a touchdown in both areas this season. He had a 102-yard kickoff return for a score at Tampa Bay on Dec.5 and a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown versus Carolina on Jan. 2.
Saturday's game features two of the top young passers in the league, and also two friends and elite quarterbacks who have plenty of respect for each other. Ryan and Rodgers have done a fantastic job in leading their teams to this point in the season, but someone will be labeled a loser. Ryan has both the hot and rested hand for this matchup and wants to set an early imprint on the NFL with a big win in his second career playoff game. Not only has Ryan proven to be almost unstoppable at home, he also understands he doesn't have to do it all. Turner is the wild-card for this matchup, and if he can find running lanes against a 3-4 defense it will be a long trip back to Wisconsin for the Packers and Atlanta's first appearance in the NFC Championship since 2004.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 23, Packers 16
01/12 16:23:40 ET