The Packers will head south to Atlanta on Sunday to take on the Falcons in the NFC Championship game. A trip to the Super Bowl is obviously on the line in this rematch from earlier in the season, and it’s sure to be a high-scoring affair between these two offensive juggernauts.
Most of the attention will go to that side of the ball when Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan are leading their teams down the field, but they’re not the only important players in this game. These 11 names are worth watching as they’re certain to have a big impact on the outcome.
Clay Matthews is finally healthy, and even though his numbers aren’t eye-popping, he’s a key player for the Packers. Matthews will need to get pressure on Matt Ryan from his blindside and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. If Ryan can stand tall and remain untouched, it’s going to be a long, long day for the Packers. Matthews needs to disrupt the Falcons’ timing when they throw the ball, which is dangerous when firing on all cylinders.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY SportsGeoff Burke
First it was Odell Beckham Jr., then it was Dez Bryant. Now, it’ll be Julio Jones drawing LaDarius Gunter in coverage. Bryant had a huge day against Gunter, and Jones is poised to put up even bigger numbers. The Packers will need to shade safety help Gunter’s way, which isn’t a good thing, considering that’ll open up opportunities for other receivers.
The Packers could potentially be without their top two receivers in Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams on Sunday as both players are battling injuries. If they’re unable to go, Jared Cook’s role will be even more important than it already is. Cook is an X-factor for the Packers, providing Rodgers with an athletic pass-catching tight end in the middle of the field. He’ll have a huge impact on this game, even if he doesn’t catch a 35-yard pass on the sideline with three seconds left.
Kevin JairajUSA TODAY Sports
The Packers have two good edge rushers in Nick Perry and Clay Matthews. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder will play a key role in keeping them away from Matt Ryan, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. The Falcons are a rhythm team and the best way to break up their timing is to disrupt Ryan in the pocket. Schraeder is a great right tackle, and he’ll need to play like one against Perry and Co.
Bryan Bulaga had a fairly easy week against the Cowboys, who don’t have half the pass rusher that Vic Beasley is. Bulaga will see plenty of Beasley on the right side of the line, and he’ll have to put together his best performance to keep Beasley off of Rodgers. The NFL’s sacks leader brought Rodgers down once in their first meeting, but it’ll take more than that to throw him off his game.
USA TODAY SportsBrett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Devonta Freeman doesn’t get discussed among the best backs in the NFL because he shares the backfield with Tevin Coleman. However, Freeman is probably the better of the two for his hard-nosed running style and ability to gain yards between the tackles. Ezekiel Elliott had a huge day against the Packers and I’d expect Freeman to do the same. He and Coleman should have success against Green Bay’s linebackers.
Ty Montgomery is more than just a running back. He’s a chess piece for Aaron Rodgers, splitting him out wide often to reveal the defense’s coverage. If the linebacker follows, Montgomery, Rodgers knows it’s man. If not, it’s zone coverage. Montgomery has an impact both on the ground and catching passes, and he should have a similar impact against the Falcons as he did on Sunday in Dallas.
The best pass rusher in the league this season will go up against one of the best offensive lines in football. Vic Beasley led the league in sacks with 15.5, and he’ll face one of his toughest tests yet on Sunday. Not only will he see plenty of Bryan Bulaga, but he’ll have to get Aaron Rodgers on the ground, which is never easy. He’ll have to contain Rodgers in the pocket to prevent him from escaping and using his legs. Not having Adrian Clayborn will only make Beasley’s role more important.
Ron ChenoyUSA TODAY Sports
Julio Jones is battling a lingering foot injury, and while it’s clearly impacted his play, he’s still one of the top receivers in football. If Jones is on his game, he could put up huge numbers. We all saw what Dez Bryant did to Green Bay last week, catching nine passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns, yet Jones’ stat line might be even better. LaDarius Gunter doesn’t stand much of a chance against Jones in coverage.
Dale ZanineDale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
The likely MVP is clearly the most crucial player to the Falcons’ success, but not to the level that Aaron Rodgers is to the Packers. The Falcons are a much more balanced offense thanks to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, so they’ll run the ball more than Green Bay will. Still, Ryan needs to be at his very best in this monumental game – the most important of his career. Look for him to set the tone by airing it out against Green Bay’s suspect secondary.
Brett DavisBrett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
He’s not just the most important player in this game, he’s the most important one in the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers is playing otherworldly right now with his numbers looking like something out of a video game. Rodgers just about beat the Cowboys by himself, making ridiculous, eye-popping throw after throw. If not for his wizardry at the end of the game to find Jared Cook, the Packers may not win that game. He needs to not only match Matt Ryan, but he needs to outplay him by a wide margin.