Here we are, then. The NFC Championship game. 20 weeks ago, did any of us seriously consider this a possibility? Most of us didn’t even anticipate post-season football- hell, I had us scraping an 8-8 at best. And yet. Week after brilliant week, the offense put up gaudy records, the defence inched its way to mediocrity, and here we are. The championship game. For only the fourth time in the history of the Atlanta Falcons. Breath it in. Enjoy it.
Well, try to enjoy it. It’s not easy. I’m writing this on a Thursday night, a full three days before kick off, and I’m a mixed bag of nervousness and excitement. We’ve not had it easy, these past few years. Since this very stage of the playoffs in 2013, the Falcons have meddled with dreadfulness. Now, only four years (my god) later, we’re back. And all that stands in the way of the second Super Bowl appearance in the history of the side is the Green Bay Packers. Oh.
They have previous…
Green Bay and Atlanta have a history, alright. In 2003, a Michael Vick led Falcons became the first team in history to beat Green Bay in Lambeau Field. In 2011, Green Bay wreaked revenge en route to Aaron Rodgers’ only Super Bowl ring, destroying Atlanta 42-21 in the Georgia Dome. As recently as this season, it took a last minute touchdown drive from Matt Ryan to Mohamed Sanu to force the victory in a 33-32 thriller. Rodgers and Ryan have gone toe to toe this season, on and off the field, with both players being seriously considered for the league’s MVP award.
No one said it would be easy, now did they? Atlanta have the unenviable task of trying to slow a Quarterback who, when his side sat at 4-6 in week 11, stated his team would “run the table”. Yes, with 6 games to go, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers executed “play-off mode”, and rattled off six regular season wins in a row.
Much has been made of Aaron Rodgers’ play since he put his reputation on the line. It cannot be denied, either, that he’s played at an incredible level since. 25 touchdowns and a single interception (including the two post-season games Green Bay have contested thus far) is a ridiculous record. That’s over 8 games. People have been high on Tom Brady for putting up 28/2 over 12.
Aaron Rodgers, by himself, is a ridiculous proposition. A force that, unfortunately, might well be enough to put this Atlanta defence on its back single-handedly. Rodger’s greatest strength, aside from his…well…considerable arm strength, is his ability to extend a play. Green Bay’s offensive line is pretty good, it must be said, but Rodgers scrambles better than my eggs on a Saturday morning. The man can extend a play for 5 or 6 seconds at a time, and, from that point, it becomes almost impossible for his receivers to not get open. For Atlanta to succeed against this passing offence, the young secondary either has to play at a completely different level, or Rodgers has to be held in spot.
Vic Beastley Jr.
And that’s where Vic Beasley comes into play. For all the issues Atlanta have on defence, Vic is one of the few shining lights when disrupting the passer. The man led the league in sacks, with 15.5 total, however he was kept quiet by a poor Seattle o-line. Something noticeable about Beasley’s play this season is that Dan Quinn has dropped him into a “spy” role often against more mobile Quarterbacks…with mixed results. And it’s a smart tactic in theory. But when utilised in your own red zone, as Atlanta did back in week 8, it’s not so smart. However, should Beasley drop into spy Rodgers, the fast sack-artist could flourish. He might even keep A-A-Ron in check…
Of course, when Rodgers does get time, his receiving options, however limited, are still very talented. Rodgers’ favourite target, Jordy Nelson, was brutally hit against New York in the Wildcard, breaking two ribs, collapsing a lung, and lacerating his spleen. To say he’s a doubt for Sunday would be understating the situation. Outside of Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams make up the bulk of Green Bay’s receiving corp, with Jared Cook excelling as a pass catching tight end in recent weeks. Most noticeably, of course, culminating with a 40 yard sideline toe tapper to set up the game winning field goal vs Dallas on Sunday night. A big game will be required from Keanu Neal to keep Jared Cook quiet across the middle to avoid a repeat of Sunday.
Furthermore, a word on Green Bay’s run game: they don’t really have one. After Eddie Lacy went down mid-season, rushing duties fell to Ty Montgomerie; a converted wide receiver. Although the side do have Seattle’s leading rusher in Christine Michael backing up number 88, Montgomerie has seen the vast majority of snaps in the running back position. Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell’s continued development will be crucial to stuffing the run game this weekend.
Attack, Attack, Attack Attack Attack
Luckily for Atlanta, they have an offense as desirable, if not more so, than that situated in Wisconsin. Much has been made of the historically great offense Kyle Shanahan and Matt Ryan have presided over this season, which has picked apart defences good and bad alike. The Green Bay defence ranked 31st against the pass, giving up an average of 271.9 yards per game. If the Falcons are going to win, they’ll have to punish the second worst pass defence in football.
Julio Jones could be key this weekend. That seems a redundant statement, but it’s true. The half man-half machine-half monster wide receiver’s presence is enough to draw double coverage on most plays. Against a shoddy secondary, losing an extra man to cover Julio isn’t ideal, and the likes of Gabriel and Sanu could feast. Additionally, the influence of Freeman and Coleman out of the backfield cannot be ignored. Going up against aging linebackers in Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews can be exploited when using the super fast running back pair. Atlanta will hope that, by getting Jones involved early, in similar fashion to Saturday night, a poor secondary will open up, and points will be made available.
Green Bay, of course, made the Championship off the back of a stunner in Dallas. The Packers travelled to Jerry-World to face the 13-3 Dallas Cowboys, and, in stunning fashion, won with the aforementioned last gasp field goal. Such was the emotion of the occasion that Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthey were visibly brought to tears. Scenes, now that I think of it, reminiscent of Atlanta’s 2013 victory over Seattle at the same stage.
This is a game of two prolific offenses. We may well see 70 points total put up. For either side to emerge victorious, they need to force even just one more stop than their opponent. Either offense being held to multiple field goals might see the game won or lost.
Atlanta will be hoping their incredibly talented attack has enough to see off the Aaron Rodgers magic show. After all, how many times can the same trick be turned consecutively by the same man before his luck runs dry? 8 in a row is an incredible run, one that must come to an end eventually.
Unfortunately, I just don’t believe this young Falcons defence is the unit to end it. For all its improvements, there are still issues getting to the Quarterback. And coverage can still be an issue for a side down their best man corner. I see Rodgers getting revenge for week 8 in a close game, and advancing his side to his second Super Bowl. We mustn’t be discouraged, however. For the future is far brighter than it was four years previous. Perhaps it won’t be too long before we’re back here again.
That said, I’d give anything to be wrong.
Score Prediction: 30-32