Will Packers Seize the Moment?

NFL analysts and fans have had the week to break it down, to consider what may take place on the field at Georgia Dome Saturday night. Despite being a #6 vs. #1 matchup, it's seen as a virtual coin flip between the Packers and Falcons.

On the Pack's side, you consider the first matchup: with two missed scoring chances in the red zone, the fourth down questionable catch by Gonzalez, the late penalty on Matt Wilhelm. Despite all this, the Pack lost on a last second field goal. Then you consider the momentum--winning three straight de facto playoff games, and the way they won the last one: in part, on the surprisingly effective legs of James Starks. Add it all up and the Packers feel good about their chances in a rematch.

On the Falcons side, they feel like last year's favorite toy. They earned the number one seed with the conference's best offensive balance, a solid defense and one of the best home field's in the league. They have a Pro Bowl quarterback, a Hall of Fame tight end, a receiver who's a re-incarnation of Sterling Sharpe and a back who evokes memories of "Ironhead" Heyward." Yet, they feel so 2010.

The top seed in the NFC has fared very well in this round over the last 10 years, going 8-2, though the two losses have come in the last four years. In the AFC, the #1 has been much more vulnerable on this weekend.

In the first Packers-Falcons meeting, Green Bay was utterly unable to move the ball on the ground, except with Rodgers. it forced them to run a lot of five wide, empty backfield sets and allowed the Falcons pass rush to pin back their ears and attack the QB. Conventional wisdom says the Pack should be able to do a better job this time around. Starks was a revelation against the Eagles, but to expect a carbon copy performance is foolish.

The Falcons are very good defensively against the run, but just 22nd in the league against the pass. I expect Starks to do enough to keep the defense honest, but would be surprised if he even approaches last week's production. By the same token, I expect the Pack to perform much better against Michael Turner. His yards per carry has gone down precipitously the last few weeks--under three yards per carry. Now the week off may have him feeling refreshed, but if the Packers' defense plays the way is did the last three weeks against the run, Turner should not be a major factor.

This game will come down to which QB avoids a key mistake and makes a big play at the end. Matt Ryan is 0-1 as a playoff starter, having lost to Arizona two years ago. He's been listening to the Aaron Rodgers love-a-thon during the week and is anxious to join the conversation of "elite QBs." A win this week may get him there, but it won't be easy. While Rodgers has a full complement of talented receivers, Ryan has two. In the first game, Green Bay did a great job keeping Roddy White from making any big plays. Gonzalez caught six balls for 51 yards--including a couple of huge grabs. Ryan was 24-28 in that game for just under 200 yards. That kind of efficiency will be good enough to get another W. It will be up to the defense to put more pressure on him and force him into a mistake or two.

It feels like this is the game where Rodgers picks up the team on his shoulders and says, 'I got this.' After the red zone issues in the first meeting and the third quarter fumble last week, Rodgers probably feels like he owes the team one. But let's not forget he delivered what was, for me, his signature play of the season in Atlanta: the fourth and goal laser to Jordy Nelson that tied the game at 17 with a minute to go.

Defensively, the Pack is healthier and more sound than the first meeting. Jenkins should be close to 100% and the recent play of linebackers Walden and Bishop is a main reason this unit is winning games for this team. The team has watched film and listened to their coaches scream about the poor tackling in the first meeting. Expect that problem to be rectified.

The Falcons win the special teams battle, with a Pro Bowl returner in Weems and a steady reliable kicker in Matt Bryant. It better not come down to special teams or the Pack may be sunk.

So, do you go with the team that hasn't played a meaningful game since December 27th? Whose offensive coordinator spent part of the week interviewing for the Browns head coaching job? Whose QB has yet to win a playoff game and whose key defensive players (Abraham, Robinson, Lofton, Babineaux) were all limited in practice on Thursday?

Or do you go with the team that's won three straight lose-and-your-out games? The team whose QB has now won a playoff game and is the first in NFL history to throw seven TD passes in his first two playoff starts. The team whose running game now has a pulse and whose defense is playing on a par with the Steelers and Ravens.

Yeah, me too. Pack 27 Falcons 23


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