Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons haven’t made it to the NFC Championship since 2012 when they lost to the San Francisco 49ers. The time before that was in 2004, so the franchise’s experience in games like this is a bit thin. The Green Bay Packers, on the other hand, are in familiar territory. They’ve been to the conference title game three times since 2007, winning the Super Bowl once in that span.
All of that goes out the window, however, when these two teams take the field on Sunday (3:05 p.m. ET on FOX) with a trip to Houston on the line. Past history has no bearing on the outcome of this game, and it simply will come down to the players on the field Sunday. Atlanta comes into this one as the favorite with home-field advantage.
The Falcons will come away with a win and advance to the Super Bowl where they’ll take on either the Patriots or Steelers. Here are three reasons that will happen.
Getty ImagesScott Cunningham
Atlanta’s defense is better than it gets credit for
Much of the praise for Atlanta gets heaped on the offense, and rightfully so. It was the top-scoring unit in the NFL this season, led by likely MVP Matt Ryan. However, the Falcons didn’t get to this point solely based on their offense. The defense is far better than it gets credit for. Outside of the 32 points the Saints scored in Week 17, the Falcons haven’t allowed more than 20 points since Week 13.
It’s improved a great deal thanks to the play of Vic Beasley (44), Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, as well as Robert Alford, who’s filling in for the injured Desmond Trufant. Not many people want to credit Dan Quinn for taking the Falcons’ defense to a new level, but he deserves some praise for the job he’s done.
Atlanta’s defense is reminiscent of Seattle’s from a few years ago. The Falcons don’t have the shutdown cornerbacks or dominant duo at defensive end, but there is a remarkable amount of speed on that side of the ball. The Packers will be short of playmakers and athletic weapons, which should make it easy for the Falcons to rally to the ball and prevent big gains.
Green Bay’s wide receivers aren’t healthy
The Packers are coming into this game nowhere near 100 percent healthy. It’s impossible to expect every player to be unscathed at this point, but the Packers are the furthest thing from healthy right now. In addition to the defense being depleted – particularly in the secondary – the Packers have a number of injuries on offense. Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison – three of their four best receivers – are battling injuries and aren’t certain to play.
Mike McCarthy even said if this were a regular season game, they wouldn’t be out there. But this isn’t your average game, so there’s a chance they’ll be on the field. If they are, even just two of them, they certainly won’t be at their best. As good as Aaron Rodgers is, that’s a big deal. That leaves him with Jared Cook and Randall Cobb as his top two receiving threats.
The Falcons are missing Desmond Trufant, but they’ve been just fine without him since he went down with a season-ending injury. They have more than enough talent in the secondary to match up with Green Bay’s thinning wide receiving corps, and it could be the difference in this game.
USA TODAY SportsBill Streicher
The Falcons have too many weapons
There are a number of reasons the Falcons had the highest-scoring offense in the league this season, from Matt Ryan’s play to Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, but the number of weapons Atlanta has is remarkable. Everyone knows the top names like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, but their depth is much greater than that. Mohamed Sanu is a terrific No. 2 receiver with exceptionally strong hands, Taylor Gabriel is a dynamic Tyreek Hill-type player, and Austin Hooper is a good receiver at tight end.
That’s without even mentioning Tevin Coleman, who creates a perfect tandem with Freeman. Both of those players are dynamic in the running game as well as the passing attack. We saw that against the Seahawks, and we’ll see that against the Packers. Green Bay simply doesn’t have the depth or the playmakers to hang with the Falcons’ weapons. Jones may not be completely heathy, but he’s going to have his way with LaDarius Gunter, who was torched by Dez Bryant and the Cowboys last week.