The Georgia Dome is set to host its final football game ever on Sunday. And what a way to go out, as the NFC North champion Green Bay Packers square off against the NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. Two of the NFL’s premier passing games will be on full display, led by league MVP candidates Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers enter Sunday’s matchup riding a huge wave of momentum after shocking the No. 1 seed Cowboys 34-31 in the divisional round for their eighth win in a row. Green Bay’s offense has been hitting on all cylinders during this streak averaging 32 points and 387 yards per game. Mike McCarthy’s team hopes to continue this magical run in its second trip to Atlanta this season. The Packers lost to the Falcons 33-32 back in Week 8 on a late touchdown by the home team. A potential trip to Super Bowl LI will be at the forefront of the Packers’ minds on Sunday. However, the opportunity to avenge a tough loss won’t be far behind.
Speaking of high-powered offenses, no one put up more points during the regular season than Atlanta’s 33.8 per game. Last week, the Falcons scored 36 in its divisional round win over Seattle to stretch their winning streak to a season-best five games. Dan Quinn’s team now must face the red-hot Packers for the second time this season. At stake is the franchise’s second Super Bowl appearance, which would provide a happy ending to the team’s storied history in the Georgia Dome.
NFC Championship Game: Green Bay at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 22 at 3:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Atlanta -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Green Bay Passing Game vs. Atlanta Pass Defense
It’s almost comical looking back at all of the early-season criticism aimed at Aaron Rodgers. Some even went so far as to say that this was the beginning of the end for the Packers and their 33-year-old quarterback. No one is laughing louder at that sentiment now than Rodgers. During the Packers eight-game winning streak, Rodgers has completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,385 yards with an unbelievable 21:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Rodgers must now turn his attention to a much-improved Falcons defense, albeit one he carved up in the one-point loss in Atlanta in Week 8. He completed 74 percent of his passes in that contest for 246 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. But Rodgers also had a healthy Jordy Nelson for that matchup. Nelson led the way with 94 yards and a score in that game, but his status for this game is in doubt because of the broken ribs he sustained in the wild card win over the Giants. The good news is that even if Green Bay’s leading receiver can’t go, Rodgers still has Randall Cobb, Jared Cook and Ty Montgomery at his disposal, three guys that didn’t play in the first meeting against the Falcons. More potential bad news is that Davante Adams is dealing with an ankle injury that could limit his availability or sideline him completely as well.
Just like the first matchup, this one lines up quite favorably for Rodgers. In fairness, all matchups line up favorably for him at this point. Atlanta ranked a woeful 28th in the NFL against the pass during the regular season, surrendering 266.7 yards per game through the air. However, a young Atlanta secondary has shown vast improvement since Rodgers put up big numbers against it. During the Falcons’ five-game winning streak, Atlanta has allowed just 221 passing yards per game, which would have been good enough for a top-10 ranking over the course of a full season. The Falcons also have as many interceptions as touchdown passes allowed (7 each) during this stretch. That trend will need to hold for this defense to have a shot at limiting a red-hot Rodgers on Sunday.
While it’s easier said than done, the key for the Atlanta defense will be to contain Rodgers inside the pocket, essentially eliminating his ability to extend plays. In last week’s win in Dallas, Rodgers posted a QB rating of 82.7 on pass plays from inside the pocket. On pass plays from outside the pocket, he posted a quarterback rating of 146.8. He also made what would ultimately prove to be the game-winning play from outside of the pocket.
2. Atlanta Passing Game vs. Green Bay Pass Defense
Much like Rodgers earlier in the season, Matt Ryan has received plenty of criticism for Atlanta’s shortcomings in recent years. Last season, his 24 turnovers made a huge role in the Falcons missing the playoffs. But no one can point the finger at him this season after posting career highs in completion percentage (69.9), passing yards (4,944), touchdown passes (38) and QB rating (117.1). Perhaps more importantly, Ryan has thrown a career-low seven interceptions during his All-Pro campaign that has him among the leading MVP contenders as well. He has been especially hot over the last five games, completing 73 percent of his passes for 1,469 yards, 14 touchdowns and no interceptions while posting a sparking 131.8 passer rating.
Ryan will look to continue this momentum in his second game against the Packers. The first time around, he torched Green Bay’s defense to the tune of 288 yards and three touchdowns while completing 80 percent of his attempts. With the Packers’ still dealing with injuries in their secondary, there’s not a lot of reason to expect things to go any differently this time around. The only real issue could be the health of No. 1 target Julio Jones, who re-aggravated a toe injury in last week’s win over Seattle. There’s no reason to expect Jones to not play, but how much and how effective he will be remains to be seen. But Ryan has plenty of capable weapons at his disposal, and he has proven that he can have success without Jones on the field. In fact, he wasn’t even much of a factor in the Week 8 victory over Green Bay, accounting for just 29 yards on three receptions.
And the bottom line when it comes to this matchup is that the Packers finished second to last in the league against the pass in the regular season, surrendering 269.2 yards per game. Things haven’t gotten any better in the playoffs either as Green Bay has allowed an average of 293 passing yards per game in its two victories. The Packers did finish second in the league with 17 interceptions and sixth in sacks with 40. Production in these two categories will be critical if Green Bay’s defense wants to fare better in Sunday’s rematch against Ryan and company.
3. Battle in the Trenches
Stellar offensive line play can be attributed as one of the biggest reasons for the overwhelming success achieved by both of these offenses. Continuity has been the biggest factor in the Falcons’ success up front. Led by All-Pro center Alex Mack and right tackle Ryan Schraeder, Atlanta is the only team that started the same five offensive linemen for all 16 regular season games. This group has been instrumental in keeping a clean pocket for Ryan, as well as providing ample running room for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. While the line should be able to hold its own once again on Sunday, the front five will have their hands full trying to keep the likes of Nick Perry, Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews out of the backfield and keeping Ryan’s jersey clean.
A Green Bay offensive line led by All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Bryan Bulaga have had a huge impact on Rodgers’ success down the stretch. Despite the myriad of injuries in the Packers’ backfield throughout the season, the offense has had some success running the ball. Ty Montgomery, a converted wide receiver, is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and the line should receive a lot of credit for this.
One of the most intriguing matchups in Sunday’s game will feature Bulaga against All-Pro pass rush specialist Vic Beasley Jr., who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks. Bulaga grades out as one of the top linemen in pass protection according to Pro Football Focus. While Beasley did manage to sack Rodgers in the Week 8 meeting, Bulaga was not the responsible party on that play.
Green Bay’s offensive line will catch a bit of a break in this matchup. The Falcons will be without their second-best pass rusher, Adrian Clayborn, who tore his biceps last week. Dwight Freeney will fill in, but he’s well past his glory days as an elite pass rusher. In addition, Freeney will likely line up opposite Bakhtiari, who graded out as the best offensive tackle in the league this season.
The compelling storyline for this NFC Championship showdown is unquestionably Aaron Rodgers vs. Matt Ryan in a battle between MVP front-runners. While both teams have solid rushing attacks, this game will likely not be decided by the ball carriers. You are just as likely to see Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Ty Montgomery make an impact as a receiver as when they get the hand off. Defense also is not at the forefront of this matchup. However, it could easily be the underlying factor that decides the outcome.
The Rodgers-Ryan air show will garner most of the headlines on Monday after what should be a very high-scoring affair. But the defense that comes up with that one big play will most likely make the difference when all is said and done. In a game that features two very evenly matched teams, this contest will likely come down to the final possession, just as it did back on Oct. 30.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.