After playing very different Divisional Round games, the Falcons and Packers will meet on Sunday for the NFC title. The Packers got to this point by blowing out the Giants and barely edging the Cowboys, while Atlanta toppled the Seahawks at home Saturday.
This won’t be the first time these two teams meet, of course. They squared off way back in Week 8 in what was a pivotal moment for both squads. The Falcons won that game 33-32 thanks to a touchdown pass by Matt Ryan in the final minute, sending the Packers to 4-3 and searching for answers after a slow start. Atlanta, on the other hand, moved to 5-3.
This time, all the chips are on the table and a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line. Here are seven things that have changed since that crucial Week 8 game.
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Adrian Clayborn is out for the year
The Falcons will be without one of their best pass rushers on Sunday after Adrian Clayborn suffered a season-ending biceps injury early in the Divisional Round. In their first meeting, Clayborn sacked Aaron Rodgers twice as the Falcons got to him three times.
Fortunately, Vic Beasley is still healthy and in the fold, so they’re not down their best pass rusher, but Clayborn’s absence will be a notable one.
Ty Montgomery missed the game due to an illness
By now you know that Ty Montgomery has transitioned to full-time running back. He’s a key chess piece for the Packers and proved to be a major factor against the Cowboys with two touchdowns. Against the Falcons in Week 8, Montgomery didn’t touch the ball. He missed the game due to an illness, giving way to Aaron Rodgers as the team’s leading rusher (60 yards). Montgomery’s absence wasn’t as notable as his presence is right now, mainly because of how his role has changed.
Montgomery figures to get at least 10 touches in this game and will be a weapon for the Packers. Rodgers used him to reveal Dallas’ coverage, and he’ll likely do the same against the Falcons.
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Desmond Trufant was healthy
Cornerback Desmond Trufant entered 2016 with high expectations from both himself and the team. Though he got off to a good start, his season was cut short due to a pectoral injury. It occurred in Week 9 against the Buccaneers and required season-ending surgery, putting a damper on Atlanta’s much-improved secondary.
The injury happened one week after the Falcons’ win over the Packers, and while it clearly hasn’t crushed their season, it will play a role on Sunday. Trufant has the ability to match up with No. 1 receivers while avoiding penalties the way Robert Alford accumulates them. His presence would have greatly helped the Falcons in this one.
Jared Cook is a weapon for Aaron Rodgers
The game against the Falcons was one of six that Jared Cook missed earlier in the year. Since then, Cook has emerged as a real threat in the middle of the field, and not just because he made the biggest catch of Green Bay’s season last week. Cook is a matchup nightmare for defenses, showing exactly that against the Cowboys. Dallas boasts a tight end eliminator in Byron Jones, and Cook made several plays with him in coverage.
Cook will be a handful for Keanu Neal and the smaller Ricardo Allen, and he could be in for a big day against the Falcons.
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Tevin Coleman didn’t play
Falcons running back Tevin Coleman was one of a laundry list of players who were unable to go in this game, missing out due to a hamstring injury. He’s not so much a backup to Devonta Freeman as he is a complementary player with a similar skill set, and he’s a big reason the Falcons have had so much success on the ground this season. Coleman is a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, as evidenced on his touchdown reception against the Seahawks.
Coleman is healthy and ready to go this time around, giving the Falcons a full bevy of weapons at their disposal. Look for him to catch a handful of passes out of the backfield, while also making the Packers look silly on stretch runs to the outside. Once he puts his foot in the ground, he’s at full speed moments later.
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Jordy Nelson is injured and unlikely to play
While both teams are healthier than they were in Week 8, there likely will be a notable absence for the Packers on Sunday. Jordy Nelson suffered multiple fractured ribs in the wild-card round against the Giants and is a long shot to play against the Falcons. It could be his second missed game in as many weeks, leaving Aaron Rodgers without his favorite target yet again.
Nelson hasn’t been ruled out yet, but considering the severity of the injury and the difficulty of playing through it, don’t plan on seeing him out there. That would give the Falcons’ secondary an advatange despite also being without their best playmaker on that side of the ball, Desmond Trufant.
Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are both MVP candidates
We all knew just how good Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan were going into Week 8. What we didn’t know, however, is that they’d be among the favorites to win the NFL MVP. At the time, Rodgers had a passer rating of 91.7 with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. Ryan was having a great season with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions (113.6 passer rating), but we weren’t sure he’d be able sustain that success for the long haul.
Now, both quarterbacks are playing arguably the best football of their lives, combining for 48 touchdown passes and just four interceptions in their last nine games. That’s an absurd stat line and it shows just how good they’re playing right now.