9 huge predictions for the Packers' NFC Championship Game vs. Atlanta
When the Packers take on the Falcons for the NFC Championship in Atlanta on Sunday, a game for which the over-under is an eye-popping 61 points, it's essentially going to be one of the best offenses the NFL has ever seen against an all-time great quarterback on one of the best runs in league history, and defenses need not apply.
The Falcons are a 5.5-point home favorite, which seems high, but many people are saying the game is going to come down to which team has the ball last. And, like last week, if it's the Aaron Rodgers-led team, then Green Bay is probably going to be heading to the Super Bowl in Houston.
There are lots of compelling storylines that makes this NFC Championship one of the most highly anticipated games in recent memory: MVP frontrunner Matt Ryan has actually played just as well, if not better, than Rodgers over the latter's vaunted hot stretch; the Packers, on an eight-game winning streak, almost seem destined to continue to "run the table," as their quarterback said two months ago, and go all the way; the visitors could be without three of their top four wide receivers, making it all the more difficult and interesting to see how Rodgers performs; both defenses are expected to get torched, with Green Bay's injury-ravaged secondary serving as its Achilles' heel, and Atlanta's defense just simply being bad; the kickers on both sides are among the NFL's best and may have to step up in a clutch moment; and we could go on.
So rather than give you things to watch or keys to a win or important matchups or something – because, let's face it, you're going to watch the game spellbound, screaming and already well-informed anyway – here are nine predictions for Sunday, with which you can agree, disagree, appreciate or ignore. Go Pack.
1. Two of the injured WRs will play
Top wide receiver Jordy Nelson is still recovering from the broken ribs he suffered in the Wild Card Round game against the Giants, an injury he called the most painful he's ever experienced, and he couldn't do more than jog around without pads in practice this week. He also had the flu, along with a few other players, including Rodgers. No. 2 receiver Davante Adams sprained his ankle in the Divisional Round win over the Cowboys – the same ankle that hampered him for multiple games in 2015. Undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison, who emerged late in the season as a QB-trusted playmaker, hurt his hamstring last week in Dallas. Wide receiver is in rough shape.
All three receivers are officially listed as questionable, though none of them participated in a true practice this week. It's hard to imagine Green Bay's medical staff allowing Nelson to play Sunday, given the severity of the injury, the long-term risk for the popular player and the fact that a Jordy Nelson who can't really stretch out for a pass or take a hit – when the Falcons will be well-aware of his vulnerable ribs – isn't a very useful Jordy Nelson.
As for Adams, he said this week that if he was cleared to play Sunday, he would perform better than he did last year when he played on a bum ankle, and he sounded cautiously optimistic about his chances. Hamstring injuries are notoriously slow to heal fully, and all players can do is rest them; so holding Allison out of practice this week seemed more precautionary than predictive of his status for the game. The guess here is that Adams and Allison suit up and play in Atlanta, while Nelson hopes for another week and one more opportunity.
2. The teams will top the over-under
If you're inclined to wager on this game, bet the over, even though it's an astronomical 61 points. These two teams combined to score 65 points in their Week 8 matchup – a 33-32 Falcons victory – and that was before either offense really got going this year.
Over the last eight weeks, the Packers have averaged 32.1 points per game, which would have ranked second in the NFL, behind only Atlanta (33.8), for an entire season. Last week, Green Bay put up 34 points in Dallas, while the Falcons hung 36 on the Seahawks, who had the league's third-best scoring defense in 2016. The Packers definitely did not have the league's third-best scoring defense in 2016 (they were 21st). For their part, the Falcons were even worse, ranking 27th in points allowed at 25.4 per game.
For as great as Rodgers has been over the past two months, with a 117.9 passer rating, Ryan has actually been even better (league-high 121.6 in that span), and hotter too. He's thrown 14 touchdowns and no interceptions in his last five games, during which the Falcons have scored 42, 41, 33, 38 and 36 points. Neither defense is going to be able to stop the opposing offense; it's going to be a shootout.
3. Whoever has the ball last will win
With that previous note in mind, the prediction here is that this will be a close game that's decided on the final possession. That's not unusual in the playoffs, and it seems highly likely to be the case again Sunday.
Atlanta won the regular-season meeting by one point on Oct. 30, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 31 seconds remaining. The Packers scored 24 of their 32 points in the first half in that contest, before slowing down as the game went on, just like last week against the Cowboys. "We scored points on them last time, especially in the first half," Rodgers said this week. "We have to do a better job of playing a 60-minute game against them."
Here's a statistic: The Falcons have scored points on 52.4 percent of their drives this season. The next-closest team is at 45.7 percent. The NFL average is 35.7 percent. So, yeah, Atlanta scores a lot. In the Divisional Round game at Dallas, the teams made three field goals in the final 90 or so seconds, with Crosby kicking the winner as time expired. Whichever quarterback gets the last possession Sunday will probably be heading to Houston.
4. Crosby comes through again
And speaking of the kickers, let's talk (once more) about Mason Crosby, if only because I love talking about Mason Crosby. The 32-year-old, the second-longest-tenured Packers player after Rodgers, made all four of his extra points and became the first kicker to hit two 50-plus yard field goals in the final two minutes of any game, regular season or playoffs, last week in Dallas. He had to make the game-winner twice, after the Cowboys tried to ice him with a timeout, and he came through in the clutch.
Crosby has made 23 straight postseason field goals, an NFL record, and on Sunday he'll be kicking indoors at the Georgia Dome. That sounds pretty sweet for the wily veteran/silver fox. Expect him to be the playoff hero again.
On the other side of the coin, though, for as great as Crosby is – and as surprisingly good as new punter Jacob Schum has been – Green Bay ranked 20th in Football Outsiders' special teams efficiency this year. Their units were 23rd in DVOA and they finished with the second-fewest net yards on kickoffs – coverage and returns. Close games frequently come down to field position; will the Packers gain or lose those precious few up-for-grabs yards on special teams?
5. The Dome will be loud – sort of
As long as we already mentioned the Georgia Dome, let's address it briefly. The Georgia Dome is 25 years old, has somehow hosted a bunch of huge sporting events while always kind of sucking and it's going to be torn down after the season. Next year, the Falcons will move next door to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so the NFC Championship will be the final game at the Dome. Pour one out for the old, dumb thing. RIP.
Even when they're good, the Falcons struggle to sell out the Georgia Dome, and the cavernous venue is one of the (comparatively) quietest in the NFL, with the team reportedly even piping in crowd noise for a better atmosphere in the past. It's the last game in the building, so it will probably be louder than usual – and fans might even bother showing up for the kickoff! – but this still isn't exactly the most imposing home-field advantage the Packers have faced.
The Falcons won the last time, at home in Week 8 by a point, but the Packers won the most important matchup between the teams at the Georgia Dome – a 48-21 rout that knocked Atlanta out of the playoffs during Green Bay's run to the Super Bowl in 2011. Will it be, as Yogi Berra once wonderfully said, déjà vu all over again?
6. Montgomery will gain 100
Since seemingly breaking out with a 162-yard rushing performance in a Week 15 win at Chicago – that had some media outlets fawning over him – wide receiver-turned-running back Ty Montgomery has been pretty quiet. In the four games since, including playoffs, he's rushed a combined 39 times for 141 yards (3.6 average per carry; 35.3 yards per game) – though he's better than nothing, with Eddie Lacy and James Starks both out injured.
The Falcons were the fourth-worst defense against the run in 2016, according to Football Outsiders, and Montgomery is due for another big game. Plus, despite all of Rodgers' success, which is always key to a Packers win, expect head coach Mike McCarthy to call a lot of running plays in an attempt to eat up clock and keep Atlanta's offense off the field. If Montgomery gets off to a good start, it could also open up play-action for Rodgers and the offense to try more deep stuff.
On Saturday, the Packers added backup running back Christine Michael to the injury report, officially listing him as questionable because of a back problem. Michael isn't a major contributor and didn't even get a carry last week against the Cowboys, but if he can't play it'll mean even more responsibility on Montgomery (as well as – sigh – probably even more opportunities for fullback Aaron Ripkowski). I'm guessing Montgomery gets 15-16 rushing attempts and goes over 100 yards; by mitigating the Falcons' offense, he could be the Packers' best defensive player.
7. LaDarius Gunter will spontaneously combust
OK, not really, but at some point the 2015 undrafted rookie – who started the season as Green Bay's fourth cornerback but has become the de-facto No. 1 because of injures – will stop being a passable defender and let the opponent become very pass-able against him.
Slow, but with good size and strength, Gunter has done a commendable job stepping up over the past couple months and covering other teams' top receivers. Just in the playoffs, he's had to face two of the league's most talented wideouts – New York's Odell Beckham and Dallas' Dez Bryant – and he did not cost the Packers the game. On Sunday, he'll be facing perhaps the NFL's best pass-catcher, Julio Jones, who was second in receiving yards with 1,409, despite missing two games. He didn't do much against the Packers earlier this season, but he averaged more than 100 yards per contest in 2016.
Troublingly, it feels like Gunter is a paper tiger, his solid play largely smoke and mirrors and he's about to come back down to earth (apologies for all those trite cliches). Against the Cowboys, whenever defensive coordinator didn't give him safety help over the top – and, c'mon Dom Capers, give him safety help over the top – Bryant beat the second-year corner, including for two touchdowns. Gunter was burned a few times in Dallas, and he could be fully set on fire by Jones in Atlanta.
8. Clay will beat his cousin for a sack
Naturally, much is being made – and many stories are being written – about Clay Matthews playing against his younger cousin, Jake Matthews. The Packers' linebacker spends most of his time pass-rushing from the right side of the defense, meaning he will likely face off often with the Falcons' left tackle.
What will happen? Will they trash talk? Will they discuss a crazy aunt's political opinions? Are they even on speaking terms, and does that make Aaron Rodgers jealous?!
Matthews had perhaps his worst game of the year last week against the Cowboys, when he compiled the following statistics: one tackle. He also was embarrassed by Dallas rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott. I'm guessing Matthews comes out fired up in Atlanta and beats his little cuz for at least one sack. If he wants to make it a strip-sack, forced-fumble, fumble-recovery awesome thing like he did against the Giants, even better.
9. Game prediction
The Packers will come out fast, take an early lead and put the Falcons on their heels (or back talons?), but Atlanta will mount a comeback and make it close – or even take the lead. Ultimately, however, through the magical right arm of Rodgers and foot of Crosby, Green Bay will dramatically prevail.
Final score: Packers 37, Falcons 35.
So, what did you get right... what did you get wrong?
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