Countdown to Kickoff: Divisional round

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


Hard to believe, but Matt Ryan is the “other” quarterback in tonight’s NFC Divisional playoff game. Ryan may be 20-2 as a starter in the Georgia Dome but many would say Aaron Rodgers is the better quarterback (statistically he is) and that the Packers, not the Falcons, are the hot team.

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The Falcons may be the top seed in the NFC, but their December loss in the Dome to New Orleans, eliminated last weekend by upstart Seattle, has eroded some of the confidence around this team. The interesting thing is that the two quarterbacks are friends, although they haven’t been texting each other this week. Code of silence, Rodgers says.

The Falcons were 13-3 this season, and their other losses were at Pittsburgh in overtime and at Philadelphia. They were 7-1 at home, including a solid win over the Baltimore Ravens. Plus, unlike the Saints, they stomped the Seahawks in Seattle in mid-December, 34-18.

Ryan is well aware of the love affair with Rodgers and Green Bay’s big-play defense, but he also knows he has two of the best offensive teammates in the league in Michael Turner, who rushed for 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, and Roddy White, whose 115 receptions led the NFL. The Packers allowed more rushing yards than they gained this season, and Ryan will be quick to feature Turner. Atlanta’s offensive line has been intact all year and the right side of Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo is one of the meanest pairs in the league.

Some opponents have called them dirty.

Unlike the Packers, there is no national buzz about the Falcons. Plus, Atlanta is a melting-pot city that isn’t known as a great sports city despite the long success of the Braves. The Falcons aren’t a wild and crazy bunch, which is a tribute to coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff. Roddy White may be the only “look-at-me” player on the team, but his image pales in comparison to a Terrell Owens or a Randy Moss. White is more about production and maybe his greatest play this season was a great hustle run when he ran down 49ers cornerback Nate Clements and caused him to fumble after he picked off Ryan.

In his only playoff appearance, White had 11 catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in a wild-card loss to Arizona during the Cardinals’ improbable run to the Super Bowl after the 2008 season.

“Another first-round loss would not be good,” White said this week.

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“We feel that we have a lot to prove. Winning 13 games means nothing if we get knocked out of the playoffs right away. We want to extend our season. Two years ago, we thought we had a chance. We are going into this game with a different mentality.”

You can bet that White believes he can beat either Charles Woodson or Tramon Williams in this game and Ryan wants to find out. It will also be interesting how the Green Bay safeties hold up against veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, the team’s second-leading receiver with 70 catches good for six touchdowns.

What gives the Packers hope is that No. 1 seeds in the last five years own a 5-5 record in divisional games. Some think the Packers, who are playing on a short week, will be short on energy against a well-rested Atlanta team.

The Falcons may not be the flashiest or most athletic team, but they win because they are a tough, disciplined group and very efficient on both sides of the ball.

“That’s who they are,” said Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop. “We have to exceed everything they do. It’ll be tough.”

When Turner ran over the Packers in Week 12, they also missed 12 tackles.

“We tackled horribly,” said Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji. “Turner is as tough as they come. And Matt Ryan makes great decisions. They don’t have turnovers, which goes back to their quarterback and Turner holding on to the ball.”

“This game is World War III to us,” Suggs said. “This is Armageddon. This is the game everyone wants to see,” especially if you want to see defense.

This is the first of four weekend playoff games that feature rematches from the regular season. The Ravens haven't lost since Pittsburgh beat them six games ago while Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has won six straight starts against Baltimore.

The last four games between these two clubs have been decided by three points. It looks like Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, who has won four road playoff games during his career, will have to be accurate because the Steelers have the No. 1 rushing defense in the league.

The Steelers stopped Ravens running back Ray Rice twice this season, limiting him to 20 and 32 rushing yards in their two meetings, his two lowest outputs of the season.

Flacco must side-step the Pittsburgh pressure and focus on finding tight end Todd Heap, who is coming off a 10-catch game. Baltimore tackles Michael Oher and Marshall Yanda must slow down Pittsburgh rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who combined for 20.5 sacks this season.

Harrison is a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year with his 73 solo tackles and 27 assists.

Both Harrison and Woodley also had 31 quarterback pressures. Suggs also figures to be a factor. He’s had 10 sacks in his last 10 games, plus Steelers' tackles Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams have combined to give up 11.5 sacks this season.

Despite a porous offensive line, Roethlisberger stands tall in the pocket and has developed a quicker release this season. The Ravens broke his nose in the last game, one decided by a Troy Polamalu forced fumble against Flacco. The Steelers will attempt to establish running back Rashard Mendenhall, but they need to hit a big play to speedy wide receiver Mike Wallace.

Baltimore’s secondary has improved this season with the arrival of cornerback Josh Wilson, but the speedy Lardarius Webb figures to be matched up against Wallace in the nickel alignment. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders has given Roethlisberger another threat to go with the intermediate throws to Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Heinz Field received its third new grass surface this season following the NHL’s Winter Classic.

Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward has been in the playoffs seven of his 13 seasons. Since the start of the 2005 season, Pittsburgh has a 7-1 playoff record, which includes two Super Bowls. The only loss during that span was a home loss to Jacksonville in 2007.

Speaking of defensive players, Ravens safety Ed Reed led the NFL with eight interceptions despite missing the first six games of the season after hip surgery. In his eight seasons, Reed has 54 interceptions with 1,438 return yards.

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Polamalu led the Steelers with seven interceptions and also had 82 tackles.

Reed spent time with his family in Louisiana early in the week following the drowning of his brother.

Polamalu continues to be bothered by a calf injury.

“When you see Polamalu out there, he’ll come out of coverage sometimes just to make a play, something that he feels, something that he sees,” Heap said.

“You think sometimes all of that is undisciplined, but most of the time he’s right.” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, “One thing I think about these two safeties is they have unbelievable hands. These are two guys that just have a great ability to catch the football, and that gives them a chance to make plays on the ball downfield. They make great catches, so they get turnovers. They’re both hitters, they both are very instinctive, they both know the game inside and out.”

Wallace didn’t catch a touchdown against Baltimore this season, finishing with seven catches for 100 yards.

However, he did average 21 yards a catch during the season with 10 touchdowns.

Baltimore’s top draft pick, linebacker Sergio Kindle, still doesn’t know if the team wants him back next year. He still hasn’t been cleared to play after fracturing his skull in late July when he fell down two flights of stairs, missing the entire season. Kindle signed a one-year, $320,000 contract, but the team can hold on to him by assigning him a minimum tender. He also has a court date in March for a DUI arrest and charge from last month in Howard County, Md. Kindle registered a 0.17 blood-alcohol level, more than twice the Maryland limit of 0.08.

The Ravens failed to talk Suggs out of wearing a T-shirt this week during interviews that read, “Hey Pittsburgh” and has a large Raven giving the middle-finger salute. In training camp, Suggs wore a shirt that read: “You bet your sweet ass I hate Pittsburgh.”

The Ravens have signed former Bills wide receiver James Hardy to their offseason roster. The former second-round pick from Indiana is ineligible for the playoff roster.


Packers at Falcons, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX

The Packers failed to generate a turnover in the regular-season meeting, a Week 12 game that the Packers thought they should have won. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 344 yards, but he had a costly goal-line fumble after directing an 84-yard drive in the second quarter.

It was the difference in the game, one the Falcons won 20-17 on a Matt Bryant field goal with nine seconds left.

Green Bay used a spread offense and Rodgers was in the shotgun 42 times out of 59 plays in that game. That strategy may work again against the Falcons, who could be minus cornerback Brian Williams for this game. The big unknown is how much coach Mike McCarthy will use rookie running back James Starks, who rushed for a career-high 123 yards in last Sunday’s playoff win over the Eagles.

If Starks can run effectively, it would set up Rodgers for some deep play-action against under-sized safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. Moore doesn’t have great recovery speed while the Packers have one of the game’s best receiving corps, led by Greg Jennings and Donald Driver.

Green Bay didn’t tackle very well in the November game as Falcons running back Michael Turner rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown.

Matt Ryan played a smart, tactical game in the win, misfiring on only four of 28 attempts for fewer than 200 yards passing.

The Packers are hoping that defensive end Cullen Jenkins will be more effective this week than against the Eagles and will help stop Turner. It’s essential that Green Bay stops the run in order to unleash its Clay Matthews-led pass rush.

The Packers are very good off the edge, plus cornerback Charles Woodson can rush and also strip players with the best of them. Linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) is out again, meaning that Erik Walden starts at right outside linebacker for the fifth straight game.

On that right side, the plan is to start Howard Green in the base defense and Jenkins in the nickel, and relieve with C.J. Wilson.

Dom Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator, would prefer to dictate tempo rather than have Matt Ryan control the clock with short passes and Turner’s runs. Falcons wide receiver Roddy White had just five catches for 49 yards in the first meeting, as Ryan spread the ball to nine different receivers.

Atlanta’s best rusher, John Abraham, will have a rough time getting around Packers left tackle Chad Clifton, who has had another solid season.

CZAR’S SCOOP: The Falcons are 20-4 in the Georgia Dome under Mike Smith and the franchise is 2-0 in its playoff history in the Dome. If Brian Williams can’t go for the Falcons, look for second-year cornerback Chris Owens to assume his nickel-back role.

Williams, who had reconstructive surgery on his right knee last season, has a sprained left knee this time.

Owens lost his job to Williams early in the season because he wasn’t as adept at rushing the quarterback and creating turnovers.

Rodgers accounted for nearly all of Green Bay’s 418 total yards in the Week 12 game. He also ran 12 times and gained 51 yards, and scored on a quarterback sneak. This is the third straight winning season for Atlanta’s Mike Smith and he’s the only coach in franchise history to accomplish it.

He was named Coach of the Year by The Sporting News and it looks as if his staff, one of the best in the NFL, will remain intact as offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was bypassed by both the Browns and Broncos.

Because of the rare snow and ice storm earlier in the week, Smith and many of the Falcons slept at the facility, which has a mini-hotel quarters that is used during training camp and for private company functions. Smith stayed much of the week at the facility, saying “I’m from Florida, I’m not going out in that stuff.”

There is a slight chance that former starting safety Atari Bigby (groin) could be activated to backup Charlie Peprah. If Jason Spitz (calf) is out, rookie Nick McDonald is prepared to be the main backup at center and possibly both guards for the Packers.

With the emergence of Starks and the potential return of high-salaried Ryan Grant next season, Packers running back Brandon Jackson, who started 13 games this season, is without a contract for next season and feeling like the odd man out.

Tagged: Falcons, Bills, Packers, 49ers, Ravens, Steelers, Charles Woodson, Hines Ward, Howard Green, Brian Williams, Matt Bryant, Ed Reed, James Harrison, Terrell Suggs, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Turner, Aaron Rodgers, Roddy White, Ryan Grant, Tramon Williams, Joe Flacco, James Hardy, Matt Ryan, Mike Wallace, Michael Oher, William Moore, Sergio Kindle, James Starks, Nick McDonald

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