Five Questions: Packers vs. Falcons

Matchup: Packers (11-6) @ Falcons (13-3)
Kickoff: 8:00PM ET, Saturday

1. Can the Falcons deal with the Packers’ newfound offensive balance?
In the first game between these two teams, the Falcons did a nice job of forcing Aaron Rodgers to throw underneath. On the three plays that went for 30 yards or more, two of them happened because Atlanta defensive backs failed to wrap up Green Bay receivers. (The other play was a great flea-flicker play call by Mike McCarthy on a 3rd and 1.) But in that first meeting, the Falcons also didn’t have to game plan for running back James Starks, who shredded Philadelphia for 123 yards on 23 carries. Atlanta knew it didn’t have to worry about stopping the run and therefore could commit extra defenders into coverage. The Falcons won’t be able to do that again this time if Starks gets going, so they’ll have to deal with both him and Rodgers (one of the most effective quarterbacks in the league). The Packers definitely have the upper hand when it comes to showing the Falcons different looks because Starks didn’t play in the first game.

2. Can the Packers slow the Falcons’ running game?
Green Bay’s front seven needs to attack Atlanta’s running game like New Orleans did in Week 16. The Saints didn’t do anything special in that game to slow Michael Turner. They simply attacked the line of scrimmage and forcefully filled Turner’s running lanes. One thing the Falcons had success with in the first meeting with the Packers was running the ball downhill. They didn’t try to go north south with Green Bay; they attacked the outside linebacker position opposite Clay Matthews by moving their lineman downhill. Then fullback Ovie Mughelli did a great job of blocking the first defender in the hole and Turner was patient before heading up field. The Packers can’t allow the Falcons front five and Mughelli to dictate where they the play to go. They must attack and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

3. Will McCarthy’s conservative ways cost the Packers?
John Paulsen did a great job discussing this topic in more detail, but I’ll add my two cents here. The Falcons aren’t a team you want to give the ball back in the final two minutes when they can either win or tie the game on one drive. In seven different games this year, they were either tied or trailing in the fourth quarter and wound up winning. They don’t panic when they get behind and Matt Ryan has lived up to the nickname “Matty Ice” in terms of performing under pressure. That said, if the Packers can jump out to a second half lead and McCarthy doesn’t take his foot off the pedal, the Falcons don’t have quick-strike ability under OC Mike Mularkey. McCarthy can’t play not to lose like he’s done so many times in the past. The Packers need to get a lead, continue to build on it and put the game away in the fourth quarter.

4. Can the Falcons control the tempo of the game?
Turner is without a doubt the key to the Falcons’ success this weekend. If they can get him rolling in the running game, they’ll be able to slow the tempo of this game and leave Rodgers on the sidelines. If they get into a shootout with the Packers, they’ll lose. If they can’t dictate how the game is being played, they’ll lose. They need to do exactly what the Jets did last Saturday in Indianapolis and slow the tempo down to screeching halt and make it impossible for the Packers’ offense to get into a rhythm. The Falcons need to put together long scoring drives and when they reach the red zone, they need to put six on the board. A high-scoring back-and-forth slug match isn’t something Mike Smith’s team wants to get into.

5. Which quarterback will come up big in the clutch?
Chances are, this game will be decided in the fourth quarter and it may even come down to the final possession again like it did earlier this season. Both Rodgers and Matt Ryan have the ability to play perfect games and neither of them turns the ball over much. But which quarterback ultimately puts his team on his back late in the fourth quarter will probably decide the outcome. I think this game will live up to the hype and if it does, Rodgers and Ryan’s final drives will likely decide the outcome.

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