NFL Preview - Green Bay (4-0) at Atlanta (2-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's been 46 years since the Green Bay Packers opened a campaign with five straight victories. The Atlanta Falcons would love to deny them a 5-0 start and avenge last season's home postseason loss, but know they must slow down the league's hottest quarterback to do so.
The Aaron Rodgers-led Packers return to the Georgia Dome on Sunday for the first time since a 48-21 NFC Divisional Playoff victory over the Falcons on Jan. 15, part of a current 10-game winning streak that includes a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. Green Bay won three straight road playoff contests en route to reaching the championship game.
Rodgers threw for 366 yards with three touchdown passes and no interceptions in that win over the Falcons, and has yet to slow down since. His 1,325 passing yards so far are the most in club history through a season's first four games, and in last weekend's 49-23 rout of the Denver Broncos he became the first player in league history to post 400 passing yards (408), four passing touchdowns and two rushing scores.
"Aaron Rodgers is a special player that played extremely well [last week]," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "Four touchdowns through the air and two rushing touchdowns, that's as fine as a quarterback performance I think I've been a part of statistically. Our offense starts with Aaron Rodgers."
The aggressive Packers scored 21 straight points after Denver opened with an early 3-0 lead, getting a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown by Charles Woodson to extend the cornerback's club record for defensive touchdowns to 10, while Rodgers ran for an 11-yard score on a drive that began when Green Bay recovered the ensuing onside kick.
Green Bay's lopsided victory kept them as one of two undefeated teams left in the NFL -- along with the 4-0 Detroit Lions -- and its 10-game win streak is the franchise's longest since a 12-game run from 1961-62.
The Packers are also off to their third 4-0 start in the past 45 seasons (1998, 2007) and are looking to win five straight to open a season for the first time since the 1965 Vince Lombardi-coached club began 6-0.
"They are the defending Super Bowl champions, so they've got a great pedigree," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith. "They've got an outstanding quarterback that has lots of weapons and that's going to be the biggest concern for us, to be able to slow these guys down. They're playing outstanding football."
Smith's Falcons sit at 2-2 on the season following last weekend's 30-28 win over Seattle and will play their second home game of the season. They rallied for a four-point victory over Philadelphia back in Week 2 and are 21-4 at home since 2008, though that mattered little to the Packers during last year's playoffs.
Atlanta nearly let last week's victory get away, as it was outscored 21-6 in the second half. The Falcons led 24-7 at intermission and held the Seahawks to 45 yards of offense in the first quarter.
Michael Turner ran for a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter for the Falcons, but the Seahawks had a chance at a game-winning field goal in the final seconds. Atlanta was aided by a false start call on Seattle wide receiver Sidney Rice that led to Seattle attempting a 61-yard field goal that fell short with eight seconds left.
"We had some struggles out there in the second half," Turner said. "They made some adjustments and we have some things to work on. We need to work on the killer mentality, it could have been ugly. It was nice for us to get this win. We really needed it."
Inspiration shouldn't be lacking in this game for the Falcons given last year's playoff loss.
"Will it be a motivating factor? It's something that I believe we all have on our minds simply because it was the last game of the season last year," said Smith.
Atlanta had lost its past two road games before last weekend's win and will also host Carolina next Sunday.
Atlanta evened the overall regular-season series between these teams at 12-12 by virtue of 30-17 victory at the Georgia Dome last November, and also handed the Packers a 27-24 defeat at Lambeau Field during the 2008 campaign. Green Bay's last non-playoff win in Atlanta occurred in 2005, a 33-25 decision.
Last January's playoff clash marked the third time the Packers and Falcons have squared off in the postseason. Green Bay earned a 37-20 home win over Atlanta in a 1995 NFC First Round Playoff, while the Falcons stunned the Pack in Wisconsin by a 27-7 score in the opening round of the 2002 NFC Playoffs. That game stands as the first postseason setback at Lambeau Field in Green Bay history.
Counting last season's playoff win, McCarthy sports a 2-1 career record against Atlanta, while Smith owns a 1-2 mark versus both the Packers and in head-to-head bouts with McCarthy.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Rodgers' red-hot start has helped the Packers produce 148 points so far in 2011, breaking the 1945 team's mark of 140 points through the first four games. Rodgers (1325 passing yards, 12 TD, 2 INT) leads the NFL with a 124.6 passer rating and 73.0 completion percentage, an impressive feat given how much he has spread the ball out. In addition to his first two rushing touchdowns of the season, he completed a touchdown pass to four different wide receivers: Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson. Jennings (25 receptions, 3 TD) paced Green Bay's fifth-ranked pass attack with seven catches for 103 yards, Nelson (15 receptions, 3 TD) finished with five for 91 yards and running back James Starks (210 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 1 TD) grabbed five passes for 38 yards while also rushing for 63 yards on 12 carries in place of the injured Ryan Grant (157 rushing yards). Grant could return this weekend from a kidney bruise suffered two weekends ago versus the Chicago Bears, while right tackle Bryan Bulaga (sprained/bruised knee) is questionable after also sitting out last week's game. Tight end Jermichael Finley (18 receptions, 3 TD) was targeted six times by Rodgers, who was also picked off once, but made just three catches for 28 yards.
Rodgers hasn't turned the ball over much this year, but he will be tested by a Falcons club that has forced a turnover in 23 straight games, the longest active streak in the league. Interceptions by linebacker Curtis Lofton (37 tackles, 1 INT) and safety Thomas DeCoud (19 tackles, 2 INT) last Sunday furthered the streak, with DeCoud having posted a pick in the end zone in back- to-back games. Atlanta ranks 10th against the run and held the Seahawks to just 53 yards on the ground, but is 27th in scoring defense at 26.3 points allowed per game. Cornerbacks Dunta Robinson (19 tackles) and Brent Grimes (18 tackles) should see a lot of work on Sunday night, and the duo is still looking for its first interceptions of the season, though Atlanta has totaled six as a team this year. Safety William Moore (20 tackles, 1 INT) and Lofton logged eight tackles each against Seattle and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (38 tackles) added seven. Atlanta did not log a sack versus the Seahawks, but defensive end John Abraham (8 tackles, 2 sacks) has one in each of his past three games versus the Packers, including playoffs. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas has missed the past two games with a calf injury and Mike Peterson has been starting in his place.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta brings a more balanced attack into the game, ranking 11th through the air and 19th on the ground. The Falcons did get their running game going versus Seattle, getting 70 yards from Turner (304 rushing yards, 3 TD) as part of the team's 121 total rushing yards. Quarterback Matt Ryan (1135 passing yards, 6 TD, 4 INT), meanwhile, completed 28-of-42 pass attempts for 291 yards, finding tight end Tony Gonzalez (21 receptions, 4 TD) for a short touchdown and avoiding both an interception and a sack. Ryan has thrown a touchdown pass in three straight games and 21 of his past 23, while Gonzalez has a scoring catch in all three of his career regular-season meetings with the Packers, logging 20 catches for 281 yards over that span. Rookie wide receiver Julio Jones (24 receptions) has proven to be an excellent compliment to Roddy White, setting a career high with 11 catches for 127 yards last weekend and leading the club with 342 receiving yards on the season. White (26 receptions, 1 TD), meanwhile, grabbed six passes for 78 yards. With Jason Snelling out with a concussion, Jacquizz Rodgers backed up Turner at running back last week.
The Packers have had trouble defending the pass this year, ranking 31st in the league at 335.8 yards allowed per game through the air compared to 71.0 yards allowed on the ground, but logged three interceptions on Denver quarterback Kyle Orton last week while holding him under 300 yards passing. Woodson's pick- six moved him into a tie with Darren Sharper for second in NFL history with 11 career interceptions returned for touchdowns, one behind Rod Woodson. Charles Woodson (14 tackles) and safety Morgan Burnett (34 tackles, 1 sack) are tied for the NFL lead with three interceptions each as well. Cornerback Sam Shields (17 tackles, 1 INT) added a career-long 60-yard interception return against Denver and safety Charlie Peprah (9 tackles, 1 INT) also grabbed a pick of Orton. Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (36 tackles, 2 sacks) was all over the field last week, making 10 tackles while also recording Green Bay's only sack and forcing a fumble, and both linebacker A.J. Hawk (15 tackles) and Burnett had six tackles.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Atlanta's secondary will need field-wide vision, given that the Packers are the only team in the league with five wide receivers that have made at least seven catches this season. Last Sunday's win also marked the first time in Green Bay history that four different wideouts caught a touchdown pass in the same game.
Green Bay will also need to protect the ball given Atlanta's ability to cash in on mistakes. The Falcons have eight takeaways this year, turning those miscues into 27 points.
Atlanta must avoid getting into a shootout with the league's top-scoring team. The Falcons are most effective when they can mix in a heavy dose of Turner into the offense, something the 16th-ranked scoring club (22.5 ppg) won't be able to do if the points come fast and furious.
Rodgers' start has even caught the attention of legendary Packer Brett Favre, so you know the Falcons will be keeping all eyes on the Green Bay quarterback this weekend. It might not matter. Rodgers is in a Peyton Manning-type zone, namely the ability to make big plays on the field regardless of who the target is. He isn't afraid to throw to any of his receivers, and that will make it difficult for Atlanta's shaky pass defense, which is tied for 24th in the league, to come up with big stops. The Falcons' best chance is to get some pressure on Rodgers in the hopes he makes some mistakes, but even the Georgia Dome won't rattle the defending Super Bowl champs.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 27, Falcons 17
10/07 08:38:19 ET