By Barry Wilner
Breaking down the matchups for the NFC championship game Sunday, 2:05 p.m. on FOX, between the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons.
When the Packers (12-6) have the ball
Aaron Rodgers couldn’t be hotter. After predicting the Packers would rise from 4-6, the quarterback made sure they did with some magnificent work. Expect him to throw plenty against a defense that can rush the passer thanks to All-Pro Vic Beasley Jr., who led the league with 15.5 sacks; but Atlanta ranked 28th against the pass. Even if top targets WR Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams, are sidelined, Rodgers will expect to find WR Randall Cobb, RB Ty Montgomery, and TEs Richard Rodgers and Jared Cook, he of the miracle catch against Dallas.
With the emergence of Montgomery as a running back after a move from receiver, Green Bay has some balance to its offense. It needs a recently improved O-line anchored by LT David Bakhtiari to continue its progress.
Atlanta figures to be aggressive against Rodgers, knowing that a conservative D could get chewed up. Rookie LB Deion Jones, Brooks Reed, coming off a big game against Seattle, and a host of unheralded DBs will be tested.
If Green Bay has the ball near the end of the second or fourth quarters, might be time for Falcons fans to say a few Hail Marys.
When the Falcons (12-5) have the ball
Watch out. This is as mighty an offense as the NFL has, thanks to All-Pro QB Matt Ryan throwing to All-Pro WR Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and breakthrough wideout Taylor Gabriel. Ryan, who led the league in passing, also has favorable matchups with RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman as targets.
Ryan might be the best deep-ball passer in football (though Rodgers is no slouch), and the Packers are vulnerable in an injury-battered secondary. Expect Atlanta to test the likes of Damarious Randall, Micah Hyde, LaDarius Gunter, who struggled mightily against Dallas, and, if they’re ready to go, Quinten Rollins and Morgan Burnett. Only S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been truly reliable in the secondary.
The Falcons certainly will be balanced with the ball, probably much more than Green Bay is. Unless, of course, the Packers can stymie Freeman/Coleman with the work of LBs Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Jake Ryan.
Perry and Julius Peppers will provide the pass rush, along with Matthews at times. Atlanta gave up 37 sacks, so Ryan is reachable. His main protectors, as well as blockers for the run game, are RT Ryan Schraeder, C Alex Mack and LT Jake Matthews, who is Clay’s cousin.
Eric Weems gives the Falcons dependable returning on kickoffs and punts. He ranked sixth in punt runbacks (11.4 yards per) and would have ranked the same on kickoffs at 23.0 had he made enough returns to qualify. Matt Bosher is steady but punted only 44 times this season, which says a ton about the offense.
Matt Bryant is in his 15th pro season, but has never been to a Super Bowl. His leg remains powerful at age 41, and he doesn’t get nervous.
That couldn’t have been said about Green Bay K Mason Crosby, who has had an up-and-down career since 2007. But he does own a championship ring and he hit a pair of pressure-packed kicks from 50-plus yards to beat Dallas last week.
Second-year P Jacob Schum was near the bottom of league stats, but he does have to kick in difficult weather for a portion of the schedule.
The Packers don’t achieve a lot on returns, particularly with Cobb out of the mix, and are vulnerable to kickoff runbacks.
Atlanta’s Dan Quinn is a novice at this as a head coach, but won a Super Bowl as Seattle’s defensive coordinator in the 2013 season. He resembles his mentor, Pete Carroll, in demeanor and willingness to push the envelope.
Mike McCarthy sometimes gets criticized for only getting to one Super Bowl with Rodgers behind center. But McCarthy, an offensive mastermind, has made the playoffs eight consecutive seasons, and helped get the Packers from 4-6 to this point.
How about this for Atlanta: The Falcons have never won a Super Bowl, losing their only visit in the 1998 season. This also will be the final game in the Georgia Dome before the Falcons move into a new building next door.
Green Bay is on a tear and Rodgers has never performed better, not even in his two MVP seasons. Although he probably doesn’t think about it, another ring would lift him above predecessor (and Hall of Famer) Brett Favre’s achievements.