Running game key for both Falcons and Packers
The last time the Falcons and Packers met in the playoffs, Michael Vick handed Green Bay its first home playoff loss at Lambeau Field. Both teams have gone through many changes from head coach to quarterback so when Atlanta welcomes the Packers to town today for the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, history means nothing. Recent history too may be the window.
Conventional wisdom would say Atlanta has the advantage. Afterall, the Falcons defeated Green Bay earlier in the season and have a sparkling 20-4 home record since 2008 and lost just one game at the Georgia Dome this year. But to say this game will be anything like November's matchup is just flat wrong.
This is the playoffs. And as fans, players and coaches know, things are different when it's win or go home. Plus, what was Atlanta's strength and Green Bay's weakness the first time around — the running game, may be more even than the numbers show.
Atlanta's success is predicated on ball control and the team's ability to run the ball. Michael Turner bounced back after an injury-plagued 2009 season to lead the NFC in rushing with 1,371 yards — good enough for third overall in the NFL. But in his last three games he's rushed for 82, 48 and 67 yards. More of a concern is Turner's recent struggles to hold on to the ball. The sure-handed running back fumbled the ball inside the red zone in each of Atlanta's final two games after not fumbling at all the first 14 games.
For the Packers, they made the playoffs despite much of a running game. The Packers finished 24th in the NFL in rushing and relied on Aaron Rogers and the passing game for much of the season. In the regular-season matchup, Rogers was Green Bay's leading rusher with 51 yards on 12 carries. That was then. The emergence of James Stark is a new variable Atlanta didn't see the first time around. Starks ran for 123 yards in Green Bay's 21-16 Wild Card win over Philadelphia last week.
Atlanta is the more balanced team offensively and it's easy to think Green Bay has the advantage through the air. But that isn't necessarily the case. Rogers had a tremendous second half of the season and is coming off his first playoff win. Despite finishing fifth in the NFL in passing as a team though, Rogers (3,922 passing yards) threw for only 217 more yards than Matt Ryan and each chucked 28 touchdowns.
Both teams have bigtime weapons in the passing game. Roddy White led the NFL and set a team record with 115 receptions. Tony Gonzalez is a future Hall of Famer at tight end and Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas are serviceable second options in the passing game. Green Bay has three receivers catch at least 50 passes. Greg Jennings led the way with 79 catches for 1,265 yards and James Jones (50) and the age-defying Donald Driver (51) give Rogers plenty of targets.
Defensively is where things get interesting. The Packers were the fifth best defense in the NFL statistically and tied fifth overall against the pass with guess who, Atlanta. The difference came against the run. Atlanta ranked 24th against the run where Green Bay was marginally better at 18th and each team creates turnovers. The Falcons finished fourth in turnover margin while the Packers were ninth.
Ryan is 20-2 as a starter at the Georgia Dome and that can't go overlooked. He'll look to do what no other Falcon quarterback has done and that's win a home playoff game for a top-seeded Atlanta team. The only other time the Falcons had home-field advantage in the NFC was in 1980 when they lost their opener 30-27 to Dallas. The Falcons had to go through Minnesota when it reached the Super Bowl in 1998. But to do so, Ryan will need help. And he'll need Turner to hold on to the ball.
Chugging along: Michael Turner ran for 1.371 yards for the Falcons who host Green Bay Satrurday at 8 p.m.
NFC Divisional Round Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Saturday, 8 p.m. Channel 5, FOX