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NFC Championship Preview: Green Bay Packers vs Atlanta Falcons

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Green Bay, Atlanta Head Into NFC Championship Game The Two Hottest Offenses In Football

The Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers enter this week’s NFC Championship Game both riding high and feeling confident.

Atlanta is coming off a dominant performance on both sides of the ball in a 36-20 rout of the Seattle Seahawks in the Georgia Dome, while Green Bay comes in winners of eight straight, including playoff victories over the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys the previous two weeks. 

The game will mark the 4th time the Falcons have reached the Conference Championship game in the past 20 years, and the second time for the Packers in the last three seasons.

In what is scripted to be a shootout led by two of the very best the quarterback position has to offer in Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers, anything is possible, but TSJ Sports is here to tell you what to expect.

Andy Gallagher will focus on the Falcons, Mike Hopfinger will take care of the Packers.

Atlanta Falcons NFC Championship Preview:

The fact that the Falcons are playing in the NFC Championship game must rank as one of the biggest surprises of the season. With a young defense and an offense that struggled in its first year under the leadership of Kyle Shanahan, the team looked set for another middling season in which they weren’t good enough to make the playoffs but weren’t bad enough to find one of the elite talents in the draft.
 
Since reuniting in 2014, General Manager Thomas Dimitroff and Assistant General Manager Scott Pioli have made astute signings in free agency and backed them up with a string of successful draft classes. They look to have benefited from the “fast and physical” vision that head coach Dan Quinn clearly has for the team with the defense evolving into a version of the one that he ran in Seattle.
 
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the game plan will be getting the ball in the hands of Matt Ryan and the offense. The Falcons have scored touchdowns on their opening drive in the last 7 games, and while it has so often been big plays and quick scores, a 13 play drive covering 75 yards and lasting over 7 minutes was the perfect response to the early points from the Seahawks in the Divisional round.
 
The biggest threat to the Falcons on offense in the NFC Championship game will be the Packers pass rush with Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Nick Perry all capable of generating pressure. Ryan handled the Seahawks defensive line expertly last week, getting the ball to his receivers before they could get close to him.
 
There are few linebackers in the league who can deal with the speed that the team possesses and Shanahan will look to engineer a game plan than can get playmakers like Taylor Gabriel and Tevin Coleman in space. Gabriel hauled in 3 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown during the two team’s midseason matchup  Coleman, on the other hand, missed the game with injury and has shown already the ability to be a mismatch in the receiving game.
 
While cornerbacks Robert Alford, Jalen Collins, and Brian Poole have performed exceptionally since Desmond Trufant landed on injured reserve, they haven’t had to face a quarterback playing as well as Aaron Rodgers. With his ability to evade pressure and move the field behind a stout offensive line, the secondary will face their biggest test yet, being relied upon to stay in tight coverage for longer than they are used to.
 
The formula for the Falcons on defense is all about taking advantage of opportunities when they prevent themselves. When the offense is scoring points, defensive coordinator Richard Smith knows that opposing teams will be forced to throw the ball. With a pass rush that is capable of generating pressure, despite being inconsistent, the defense has stayed focused and made plays when needed.
 
While the focus will naturally be on the passing game, with MVP candidates quarterbacking either side, it could be won or lost in the running game. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman make up one of the best backfield tandems in the league and although the Packers’ run defense isn’t bad, both will feel that they are capable of making plays on the ground.
 
On the defensive side of the ball, restricting Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael and forcing long 3rd downs could be crucial. While Rodgers has shown himself capable of beating teams from anywhere on the field, he has also been let down by drops from his receivers and the Falcons stand a much better chance of stopping him when his options have been limited.
 
The Falcons can definitely beat the Packers. Both teams have been able to move the ball at will on offense and that trend should continue in the NFC Championship game. It will be won by whichever team can make the most plays on defense. The loss of Adrian Clayborn, who had been having an impressive season, will hurt the Falcons’ pass rush. They will look to Vic Beasley to lead the way with help from a supporting cast that includes Brooks Reed and Dwight Freeney, in what might be his final season.

Green Bay Packers NFC Championship Preview:

Back in Week 8 of the regular season when the Falcons narrowly escaped with a 33-32 win over the Packers at the Georgia Dome, Green Bay was plagued by numerous key injuries on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.


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On offense wide receiver Randall Cobb, running back Ty Montgomery and tight end Jared Cook were all on the inactive list, while the defense was without the services of star linebacker Clay Matthews and their two starting corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.

For reference, the trio of Cobb, Montgomery, and Cook accounted for 47 rushing and 165 receiving yards on 13 catches and three touchdowns versus Dallas last week in the Divisional Round. Cook and Montgomery have been key additions to the lineup during the Packers eight game winning streak, creating match-up problems for any defense, problems Atlanta didn’t have to worry about in October.

And with five of the six back (Rollins questionable) and playing well, it would seem Green Bay would have a leg up heading into Sunday’s NFC Championship game, but unfortunately the injury bug has again bitten them where it hurts most. In the wide-receiving unit.

Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams, who finished 1st and 2nd league-wide in touchdown receptions this season, will both be game-time decisions for a Packers offense that needs all the help they can get against the high-flying Falcons. Nelson hasn’t played since the first quarter of a Wild Card round victory over the Giants, thanks to a hit from Leon Hall that fractured two of his ribs, and Adams is fighting off an ankle injury that kept him out of a few plays against Dallas.

The duo of Nelson and Adams have been unstoppable for much of the season, and no matter what level quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing at, missing 65% of your touchdowns (26 of 40) is a tall task.

Also joining the duo on the sideline has been breakout weapon and undrafted free-agent Geronimo Allison, who is dealing with the dreaded hamstring strain that has hampered so many Packers over the years.  Since catching his first career pass (and touchdown) against the Falcons in their first high-scoring battle, Allison has emerged as a downfield threat.

Despite not seeing much playing time in weeks 12-15, injuries gave him a shot to prove his worth the past 4 weeks, catching 12 balls for 211 yards and a big score in the NFC North title game. He’s been able to mold himself into an ideal target for Rodgers, and his presence within the offense will be crucial come Sunday.

At the moment it seems Adams and Allison will brave it out and suit up for the NFC Championship Game, but Nelson feels like a long shot. This means like in Dallas, Rodgers may have to make some big-plays out of nothing.

The Falcons defense possess dangerous pass rushers like upstart Vic Beasley and veteran Dwight Freeney, so the ability of Green Bay to get the ball out early to their remaining playmakers, or utilize their top tier offensive line to buy the two-time MVP a chance to work toward the sideline is a key to watch.

Rodgers torched the Falcons secondary the first go around, passing for four touchdowns by doing just that, extending plays and throwing from outside of the pocket like only he can do. But with his usual safety valves wounded, Mike McCarthy may call the numbers of Ty Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski out of the backfield more often than in recent weeks.

So far in the playoffs Green Bay has thrown on over 70% of their offensive plays, by far the most of any remaining team, and in order to take pressure off of Rodgers that may need to change. If they hope to move on past the NFC Championship and to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2010, they’ll need production on the ground.

For the Packers defense the game-plan is pretty simple, don’t allow any big plays, specifically to Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, or Taylor Gabriel.

In the last match-up Dom Capers and his defense contained the hobbled All-Pro wide-out Jones to just 3 catches for 29 yards.

Capers played a lot of coverage’s completely designed to stop Jones, like having corner LaDarius Gunter trail him underneath most of the game with a safety over the top. He has used this over the years in stopping top-level receivers, Odell Beckham and Dez Bryant the previous two weeks for instance, but it leaves other areas of the field vulnerable.

That’s the problem with this philosophy, as the Falcons proved week 8. There is no comparison between the passing attacks of Atlanta led by MVP candidate Matt Ryan and that of Dallas and New York.

The Falcons secondary options on the outside in the aforementioned Sanu and Gabriel shredded the out-manned Packers defense, catching a combined 12 balls for 152 yards and two scores. Fortunately the addition of Randall and hopefully Rollins to the active roster, and ball-hawking safety/corner Micah Hyde’s rise in play will bolster their chances, but it will still be the ultimate challenge for a defense that’s been merely “surviving” as of late.

Atlanta’s unique blend of air and ground attack is also something to be weary of for Green Bay.

Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (missed week 8 with a hamstring injury) add a layer to the Atlanta offense that makes them that much more dangerous than any other group in the league. Freeman rushed for over 1,000 yards this year while maintaining a 4.8 yard per rush average, and Coleman rushed for eight scores and secured an additional three from the arm of Ryan.

Capers will likely approach the two backs in much the same way he did Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys, as both teams use a simple zone running scheme, sitting back in his patented nickel formation with Hyde in the slot and a 4-2 front.

It’s not ideal when facing a team with a good rushing attack, but he is willing to surrender yards to prevent big plays over the top from Matt Ryan.

The game will undoubtedly be decided by which team can hold up just enough against the opposing offensive unit, and which team can force, if any, that one big game-changing turnover. In the infamous words of Terrell Owens, you may want to get your popcorn ready for this one.

Final Thoughts & Predictions:

Andy

As a homer and a dreamer, I have to predict a Falcons victory, but I’m expecting a close game with both teams having an opportunity to win. In what is likely to be a high-scoring affair, the weapons that the Falcons possess will hopefully be enough to see them through.

As has happened so many times, I’m going to go with Matt Bryant kicking a last second field goal to win.   Score: 34-31

Mike

For Green Bay, this one will be about avoiding Atlanta’s big-play potential. This season the Falcons have recorded the second most 30-plus yard plays in the league, while the Packers have allowed the second most. Even though it can be maddening at times, Dom Capers “Zone Prevent” defense may be the only solution to slowing down Matt Ryan.

As long as you keep the many weapons for the Falcons in front of you, you’ll have a shot. Even if it means giving up 350-plus yards of total offense for a third straight week, if they keep them out of the endzone they’ll have a shot to leave the NFC Championship game victorious.

Aaron Rodgers will be ready, and he’ll outscore his counterpart in Ryan thanks to some timely plays from the Packers defense.    Score: 38-34

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