Thursday, January 13, 2011

Preview of Falcons Game

The big question is, can the Packers keep things rolling against the Falcons, and roll on to the NFC Championship Game (most likely in Chicago)? Since the Packers played at Atlanta a mere seven weeks ago, that game is an excellent place to start.

The Packers lost that game, 20-17, when Matt Bryant kicked the game-winning field goal in the final seconds. How did they get there? Well, both Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan played excellent games, with very few incomplete passes, no interceptions, and one touchdown pass each. The Packers had no running game (Aaron Rodgers was the leading rusher for the Packers), while the Falcons got 110 yards and a touchdown out of Michael Turner. Everyone acknowledges that Turner got a big assist from the Packers' defense, which had a very bad day in only one category - tackling the guy with the ball.

One way to look at it is that the big difference in the game was two turnovers by the Packers. In the second quarter, the Packers got the ball to the Atlanta one yard line, before the ball was knocked out of Rodgers' hand, where it bounced into the end zone and was recovered by the Falcons. The Packers lost either three or seven points on that fumble, and they lost the game by three points. So that was a big turnover. And then in the fourth quarter, from the Atlanta 41, Rodgers' fourth-down pass to Driver was incomplete, just barely. The Packers were not yet in field goal range at the 41, but they were getting close.

The Falcons have had the advantage of getting a week off, plus their last couple of games didn't involve much pressure, since (I believe) they already had a bye wrapped up. So they should be rested and ready. Occasionally you see one of these second round playoff games where the team that had a bye seems rusty, but overall the record of teams that had a bye is excellent. (One source says that teams with a bye have won 75% of the time since 1990.)

On the other hand, in the seven weeks since the last Packers-Falcons game, the Packers have had some ups and downs, including heartbreaking losses to the Lions and Patriots. But on the positive side:
  • They have now won three must-win games in a row, a laugher against the Giants, and uncomfortably close games against the Bears and Eagles. (While winning must-win games is a good thing, it causes one to wonder when they might get to the point that they are running out of gas.)
  • They have cleaned up their penalty problem quite a bit in recent weeks, being called for roughly half the penalties in recent games, as compared to the prior Falcons game.
  • The Packers have dialed up the pressure on defense in most of the games since the Falcons game, with generally favorable results. In the Falcons game, based on a quick review, the Packers were more passive on defense.
  • In the last few weeks, based in part on more continuity on special teams, the Packers have finally started giving up fewer big plays on special teams. A big kickoff return, aided and abetted by a Packer facemask penalty, was a huge factor at the end of the Falcons game.
  • Finally, if James Starks is for real, the Packers may finally have found a running game again, which would be enormously beneficial to the offense this week.
How do all these things balance out? Well, it makes sense that the Falcons are favored by a couple of points. They are the number one seed in the NFC, they had a bye week to get healthy, and they are playing at home. But the two teams were very closely matched the first time, and the Packers have improved in the ways noted above. I think the Packers will win this game, but like almost all Packer games, it will be close.

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