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.
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.
“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.”
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.