Aaron Rodgers gained his first career playoff victory on Sunday afternoon, leading three touchdown drives against a muddled and disorganized Philadelphia Eagles secondary, knocking out the NFC East champion 21-16. The Packers have enjoyed a maelstrom of a surge heading into the playoffs. In week 16, Green Bay annihilated the New York Giants to take over as the “interim” sixth seed before outlasting the division champion Chicago Bears one week later amid wintry conditions to secure their playoff spot.
Riding that momentum through Philadelphia, the Packers are on their way to Atlanta, where few opposing teams have been able to defeat the unshakable Matt Ryan on his own turf. Much has been made of #6 seeds riding high off of week 17 energy into the playoffs, and the Packers will test their precision passing game against an underrated Falcons defense, bringing the winner one step closer to a Super Bowl run.
Starks is the last thing a playoff team with a bye wants to see: a running back who’s played all of four games this season (including the wild card game last week), and has taken less punishment than every other back in the game still alive. Starks spells for Brandon Jackson, and is actually a more potent weapon right now (not much info on him; fresher body). After making his season debut on December 5 with 18 carries for 73 yards on the 49ers, Starks stunned the Eagles’ solid run-stopping unit with 123 yards on 23 carries, helping build an early lead that Philadelphia couldn’t overcome. A sixth round pick, 193 overall, from the University of Buffalo, Starks fills in for the injured Ryan Grant in a way that Jackson simply hasn’t. Atlanta has little intel to go on, except for the Eagles game, but that might not be enough.
2. How has Green Bay’s offensive line gotten so good?
Last season, Green Bay’s offensive line was statistically the worst in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers took 51 sacks and 93 hits. This season, the line has merely improved to 19th best, but Rodgers has taken 20 less sacks than a year ago. The biggest switcharoo was the drafting of Bryan Bulaga, who took over at right tackle. Despite the false start penalties, a hallmark of most rookies, Bulaga has given Rodgers plenty of wiggle room to make dashes to the right side. Also different from last year is replacing Jason Spitz at center with Scott Wells. Wells made a nice move Sunday, snapping the ball when he saw an encroaching defender cross the line of scrimmage. Although it’s hard to gage the running game with Brandon Jackson as the primary rusher, the pass protection is a far cry from a year ago, when Aaron Rodgers had to make quicker reads.
3. Are Green Bay’s tight ends really a threat?
The Eagles couldn’t execute body-on-body pass coverage if the lives of schoolchildren depended on it, so fifth round pick Andrew Quarless snagging 2 passes for 27 yards, and undrafted rookie Tom Crabtree getting the game’s first score on a 7 yard completion may not hold much weight. The duo has provided fair stability for the season losses of Jermichael Finley and Donald Lee, but beyond stability? The lack of a running game (before James Starks’ breakout performance) is evident in the inexperienced run blocking downfield from Quarless. Atlanta’s run defense is generally excellent, so the downfield blocking is likely to remain ineffective, but the pass defense of the Falcons is in the bottom third of the league, allowing a 226.6 yards a game through the air. If Rodgers executes the spread coverage as he did against Philadelphia, then Quarless and Crabtree could find themselves making catches easily across the middle.
4. How does Aaron Rodgers handle Atlanta’s pass rush?
Atlanta has 92 pass deflections on the year, which could spell trouble for the better-but-not-yet-great offensive line of Green Bay. The Falcons getting plenty of leverage in the trenches can keep Rodgers from making a number of dump offs and crossing throws. The key matchup is John Abraham at right end matching up with fellow Pro Bowler Chad Clifton. Abraham’s been a disruptive influence, notching 13 sacks this season, and Clifton’s been spotty (despite having one of the best years of his long career). The Falcons also enjoy a steady linebacker blitz, and Abraham is backed up by rookie Sean Weatherspoon. Working against the left side of the offensive line, I expect Weatherspoon to accompany Abraham often to disrupt Clifton’s portion of the line and try to force Rodgers to throw in a hurry. In addition, showing varied blitzes on Bryan Bulaga’s side could force a few costly false starts.
5. How does Matt Ryan handle Green Bay’s pass rush?
Flipping the coin over, a quarterback like Ryan is calm under most circumstances. However, the Packers defense rushes the pass like furious clockwork, and they haven’t allowed a 300 yard passing game since October 10 vs. the Redskins. The difference maker has been the aggressiveness of Clay Matthews, who is as effective chasing down running backs as he is pressuring the quarterback. Cullen Jenkins and BJ Raji have proven to be more efficient pass rushers than outright run stoppers, as Green Bay’s run defense numbers don’t jump off the page, but forcing quarterbacks to make mistakes with their poaching secondary is a plus. Speaking of the secondary, has there ever been a blitzing corner with the proficiency of Charles Woodson? I’m not exactly sure how the Georgia Dome crowd is going to keep “Matty Ice” from getting knocked around. If anything can break his cool, it’s Green Bay’s bull rush.
The Eagles’ Achilles heel, as has been the case, is their “pass first, pass second, maybe run third if you’re lucky” offense, and LeSean McCoy could barely get any traction going, rushing just 12 times for 46 yards. Turner’s 334 rushing attempts on the season shows a willingness to defer to him, as his powerful running style can break that first tackle and, possibly, spring him into the secondary. After a leg injury a year ago, it shows a lot of faith for Atlanta to continue giving Turner such a heavy workload. For the year, Green Bay was giving up 4.7 yards a carry, and it’s mystifying that Philadelphia didn’t try to exploit Green Bay’s over-aggressive nature with draws and pitches. With Turner and underrated backup Jason Snelling, the Falcons will have no problem mixing up the offense to keep Matt Ryan from having to deal with too many blitzes.
7. What’s the weakest spot in Green Bay’s defense?
Believe it or not, Charles Woodson in man-to-man coverage has been on a sharp decline. Make no mistake, as a blitzer or as a fumble forcer, Woodson is still as keen as his Heisman days. However, his man-to-man skills have slightly faded with age and wear-and-tear. Fortunately, this is masked by a 3-4 defense that relies heavily on zone coverage (i.e. everybody’s a safety), and through complex blitzes. The trouble is, when Matt Ryan heats up and completes pass after pass, the zone slowly shifts to man-to-man in order to prevent the unseemly gains. If Ryan renders the zone coverage and blitz ineffective early, the Packers will be forced to insert more man coverage, and if Woodson finds himself covering Roddy White, Ryan’s got a potential home run hammer. If Woodson gets safety help in man-to-man, it leaves the middle open for Ryan to unleash passes to just about anyone.
8. How will Brent Grimes try to disrupt Aaron Rodgers?
Grimes is an interesting case, as he languished on the Falcons depth chart for his first couple seasons before coming out over the last couple seasons with hard-earned interceptions and, this season, put up 23 pass deflections. Going unnoticed in Pro Bowl selections, Grimes is a miniature assassin no matter what honors he’s given. He plays like Darrelle Revis with tight coverage, but also possesses a safety instinct to cover ‘centerfield’ and perform tip-drill demonstrations. Dunta Robinson may provide better overall coverage, especially over the middle when he can lay some mean hits, but Grimes can go to goal and post while hardly losing his man. Rodgers doesn’t often try for knockout punches, instead throwing more assured sideline passes, but Grimes will certainly do his part to take the end zone away. Rodgers may have been able to dominate the red zone in Philadelphia, but it’ll be harder in Atlanta.
9. Which quarterback will be more prone to turn the ball over?
Now THIS is a good debate. On the one hand, Rodgers has put up 28 TDs to 11 INTs on the year, and can scramble his way out of trouble, dodging and ducking like a modern Steve Young. Ryan, meanwhile, was good for 28 and 9, and seems unfazed by incoming rushes and breakdowns in protection. Rodgers is up against a defense that’s well rounded and is as adept at pass rushing as they are covering downfield. Ryan’s facing a defense that plays a stifling zone, and blitzes can come in any form from anywhere. Rodgers is more prone at forcing passes, and while he’s more polished than he was, say, two seasons ago, he still has issues with the offensive line, and his scrambling has led to the occasional disasters (fumbles and the head injury in Detroit). If I’m going to play it safe, I’m sticking with Matt Ryan.
10. Matt Ryan vs. Packers defense, final minute: who wins?
Well, he’s called “Matty Ice” for a reason, and it’s his ability to block out pressure and tension in the name of succeeding at clutch moments. Tramon Williams and an under thrown pass from Michael Vick potentially kept the Eagles from advancing to the Divisional round on Sunday, but it’s in play that a team can come back on Green Bay and make the finish exciting. On November 28, tied 17-17, Ryan led the Falcons down field in the final five minutes for Matt Bryant to kick the game winning field goal, so it’s not like there isn’t a template in place. There’s no guarantee that Ryan can do it a second time, but he’s proven it possible, which is enough of a confidence builder. On the other hand, what has Green Bay learned and built on since that loss six weeks ago? I’ll say this one’s up in the air.
So who do you go with: the ferocious momentum, or the reserved sense of cool? Green Bay may have beaten Philadelphia handily in some ways, but the Eagles were one big play in that final minute away from another miracle victory. The Falcons are less likely to let Green Bay slap them around for 2 and a half to 3 quarters, and coach Mike Smith’s more of a defensive whiz than Andy Reid. The Eagles and Falcons have many similarities, but the ways in which Atlanta is opposite Philadelphia creates problems for Green Bay. The pass rush is more efficient, the pass coverage is more stifling, and the running game is actually utilized to its fullest. It’s hard to barely survive Philly and then have to play the rested Falcons, momentum or not. Green Bay, if they can’t build a big halftime lead, stands little chance of taking this one.
SCORE: Falcons 20, Packers 10
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