The 4-3 Atlanta Falcons seemed to have everything going their way early in the season. They started out 4-1, had a pair of signature wins (vs. Carolina, at Denver) under their belt and were in complete control of the NFC South. Despite continued excellence from their offense, the Falcons have now lost back-to-back games in heartbreaking fashion to the Seahawks and Chargers. They currently find themselves just one game above .500, clinging to a half-game lead in the NFC South over Tampa Bay. Atlanta must now figure out a way to get things going in the right direction against a Green Bay team it has lost to four straight times dating back to 2011.
The 4-2 Packers, along with their star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, have endured their fair share of criticism this season. Inconsistency and outright sloppiness have plagued them at variousat points. The good news is that Green Bay finally looked the part of a serious contender in the second half of an impressive 26-10 win over the Bears last week. Granted, it was the lowly Bears, but it still serves as a confidence booster for a team struggling to re-claim its identity as one of the premier entities in the NFL. The Packers, just one game removed from first place in the NFC North, will look to carry that momentum into Atlanta in search of a signature victory on the road.
Green Bay at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 30 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Atlanta -3
Three Things to Watch
1. A Beat-Up Green Bay Pass Defense vs. Atlanta’s Red-Hot Passing Attack
The Packers currently rank 15th in the NFL (242.2 ypg) against the pass. Not terrible, but far from great. Unfortunately, a string of recent injuries in the secondary could put the Green Bay under siege today. The Packers will be without each of their top three cornerbacks. Sam Shields is on injured reserve with a concussion, while Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins will miss today’s game due to groin injuries. Pro Bowl Linebacker Clay Matthews, who is instrumental to the Packers’ pass rush, is battling a hamstring injury that could keep him out of this game as well.
None of this bodes well against the Falcons’ high-powered passing attack. Atlanta currently has the No. 2-ranked passing offense in the NFL (319 ypg). Matt Ryan leads the league with 2,348 passing yards. Elite wide receiver Julio Jones is tops in receiving yards (830). In a 2014 against Green Bay, Ryan threw for 375 yards and four touchdowns, while Jones racked up 11 catches for 259 yards and a score. Look for Ryan and Jones to feast on a depleted Packers secondary again this time around.
2. Green Bay’s Offense vs. Atlanta’s Defense
The Packers’ passing game hasn’t been the model of consistency so far this season, but a big performance against the Bears last week could provide the confidence Aaron Rodgers and company need to gain some traction in that regard. Today’s matchup against an anemic Falcons’ pass defense could further serve to boost that confidence. The Falcons, who were picked apart by Philip Rivers and the Chargers last week, currently have the second-worst pass defense in the NFL, giving up 294 yards per game. They also have allowed the third-most touchdown passes so far this season (15).
While Rodgers shouldn’t have much issue dismantling a woeful pass defense, running the football will be more challenging. Green Bay’s backfield has been decimated by injuries to the extent that wide receiver Ty Montgomery is now the featured running back. Montgomery fared well in that role last week averaging an impressive 6.7 yards per carry. He also brings an added dimension to the backfield as an outstanding pass catcher. However, it isn’t an ideal scenario, and this week’s matchup against a top-10 run defense isn’t overwhelmingly favorable for the Packers’ makeshift ground game.
3. Atlanta’s Ground Game vs. Green Bay’s Run Defense
At first glance, a matchup against the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL appears ominous for the Falcons’ running game. It also doesn’t help matters that Atlanta’s backfield won’t include Tevin Coleman (hamstring), who has formed a formidable duo with Devonta Freeman. While it won’t be easy for Freeman to carry the load on his own against this defense, the matchup may not be quite as scary as it looks on paper.
The Packers are giving up just 72 rushing yards per game and have allowed just one rushing touchdown in six games. That is incredibly impressive. But Green Bay also has faced just one offense that averages more than 89 yards per game on the ground. In fact, the Packers have faced the worst running teams (Giants, Jaguars, Vikings) in the league. In their only game against a team that currently ranks higher than 24th in rushing offense, Green Bay was gashed by Dallas (No. 1 in the NFL) for 191 yards, 157 of those by rookie Ezekiel Elliott. The Falcons haven’t had the same success as the Cowboys when it comes to running the football, but Freeman (508 yards, 8th in NFL, 4.8 ypc) is plenty capable of being a thorn in the side of the Packers’ defense.
It’s a tall order for even the healthiest of defenses to slow down Atlanta’s potent passing game. But when you need to rely on your fourth-best option at cornerback to defend arguably the best pass-catch duo in the NFL, you are probably going to find yourself in serious trouble. That is exactly the scenario that Green Bay finds itself in for today’s matchup. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have enough offensive firepower to make a game of it against a generous Falcons defense. However, it won’t be enough to overcome the deficiencies facing their defense while playing on the road. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones should put up monster numbers as the Atlanta bounces back at home in an offensive shootout.
Prediction: Falcons 34, Packers 28
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.