The last time the Atlanta Falcons hosted the Green Bay Packers, it was for an NFC championship in the final game to ever be played in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons scored a dominant 44-21 victory in that matchup, earning a trip to Super Bowl LI in the process. Tonight, the Falcons will be playing their first-ever game in the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And once again, the Packers will be the team on the opposing sidelines. A trip to the Super Bowl may not be on the line this time around, but the stakes remain high in this much anticipated early-season rematch between two of the top teams in the NFC.
Tonight’s contest actually marks the Packers’ third trip to Atlanta to face the Falcons in less than a year. In addition to Atlanta’s NFC Championship Game victory, the Falcons earned a hard-fought 33-32 win against Green Bay in Week 8 of last season. Mike McCarthy’s Packers are hopeful that the third time will be the charm, as they look to exact some revenge and spoil the Falcons’ debut in their new home. Green Bay enters tonight’s contest 1-0 after defeating Seattle by a score of 17-9 last Sunday at home.
Dan Quinn’s Falcons head into tonight’s prime-time rematch with a record of 1-0 as well. Atlanta narrowly escaped Week 1 with a 23-17 win on the road against the rebuilding Bears. The defending NFC champions will now look to make it three wins in a row against the Packers in Atlanta, with the hope that some of that Georgia Dome magic can carry over to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Green Bay at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept 17 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Atlanta -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Green Bay's secondary
The Packers did not have many flaws last season. But if you had to point to one glaring weakness, it was pass defense. Green Bay finished second to last in the NFL in 2016 in that regard. And never was that weakness exposed more than in the NFC title game against the Falcons. Matt Ryan routinely torched a depleted Packer secondary en route to a monster 392-yard, four-touchdown performance. Julio Jones had a field day as well, racking up nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Packers’ starting cornerback LaDarius Gunter.
It’s fair to say that the Packers’ secondary will enter tonight’s rematch in much better shape than the last time it visited Atlanta. In fact, the Packers feel so good about where they currently stand in the secondary, that they recently released Gunter.
Cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins are healthy following injury-plagued 2016 campaigns. Cornerback Davon House was added via free agency, and Green Bay used its first two picks in the draft on cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones, further bolstering its secondary. These moves already appear to be paying dividends. Green Bay limited Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to just 158 passing yards and zero touchdowns in Week 1. While the Packers’ secondary looks to be much improved for 2017, the real test comes tonight.
2. The Atlanta offense
The biggest concern for the Falcons heading into the 2017 season was the possibility that their high-powered offense might take a step backward following the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. While it’s still too early to make any kind of conclusive determination, the Week 1 Atlanta offense did not seem to have the same punch as the one that routinely torched opposing defenses with ease last season.
Matt Ryan did manage to throw for 321 yards and a touchdown in the road win in Chicago. However, 88 of those yards, as well as the touchdown, were due to a blown coverage by the Bears. Jones was less than spectacular as well, hauling in a pedestrian four catches for 66 yards. And the Falcons’ usually potent rushing attack, led by Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, only managed to produce 64 yards, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. The Falcons also scored 10 fewer points than their NFL-best 33.8 per game last season.
Perhaps, it was a matter of Week 1 jitters or working out the kinks under a new offensive coordinator. But it is somewhat alarming nonetheless, especially when you take into consideration that this offense was matched up against a Bears defense that isn’t exactly regarded as one of the league’s best.
That said, there is little doubt that the Atlanta offense can be great again in 2017. All the major components are still in place. The question is, can it match last season’s success with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian now running the show? Tonight’s matchup against an improved Packers defense should go a long way to help answer that question. But one thing is already for sure, the Atlanta offense will need to be much better tonight than it was in Week 1.
3. Injury concerns for the Packers’ offense
Offense is typically the least of Green Bay’s worries heading into a matchup of this magnitude. Even in the two losses to Atlanta last season, the Packers racked up plenty of yards and found the end zone seven times against the Falcons’ defense. But it will be much more challenging for Aaron Rodgers and company tonight if the Packers are without starting offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, both of whom are listed as questionable on the injury report. Bakhtiari, a second team All-Pro selection in 2016 is battling a hamstring injury. Bulaga, who graded out as one of the NFL’s best linemen in pass protection last season, is contending with an ankle injury, as well as a bout of the stomach flu. To make matters worse, backup offensive tackle Jason Spriggs has already officially been ruled out for tonight’s game.
The Packers' bookends have been a big reason for their success on offense in recent years. Without them, it could be a real struggle, particularly when it comes to keeping reigning NFL sack champion Vic Beasley Jr. out of the backfield. The Green Bay rushing attack would take a big hit as well. Despite a favorable matchup against an Atlanta run defense that gave up 125 rushing yards (6.6 ypc) and a touchdown to an uninspiring Bears’ backfield in week 1, running room may be hard to come by for Packers running back Ty Montgomery without Green Bay's starting tackles in the lineup. The Packers have played games without Bakhtiari and Bulaga in the past, and the results were not good. Even if they do manage to suit up, they are not likely to be 100 percent healthy.
There are reasons to like the Packers in this matchup. For starters, they should be much better on the defensive side of the football than they were the last time these two teams met, which bodes even better if the Falcons’ offense isn’t any sharper than it was in Week 1. And you know that Aaron Rodgers is going to give his best effort which always goes a long way.
The problem is that Rodgers may not be able to be at his best playing behind a questionable offensive line. And chances are, the Falcons will be better on offense than they were last week. There’s also the challenge that comes with facing a team that will surely be fired up to play in a brand-new stadium. A scenario that Green Bay had to contend with last season, losing to the Vikings in the first-ever game played at U.S. Bank Stadium. If the Packers did not have question marks up front on offense, their chances of pulling off the upset would improve greatly in my opinion. But as it stands, the Falcons have just enough going in their favor to make their debut inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium a successful one.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Packers 24
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.