ATLANTA — The city is absolutely on fire. We ALL are anticipating this matchup of the Green Bay Packers versus our hometown Atlanta Falcons to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI. For fans it is a true nail-biting and gut-wrenching experience, but for pundits and ultra-critical viewers of the Falcons, being in this game represents just another opportunity to say ‘I told you so.’
Although I analyze the Falcons for Sports Radio 92.9 The Game, I am also a huge fan of the team. While I am truly excited about this golden opportunity, at the beginning of the season we could not have possibly envisioned this team going this far, considering the youth of the defense, its collapse at the back half of the year, and what was considered the toughest schedule in the league. In addition, and I will be the first to admit, I did not think that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Matt Ryan could get on the same page… Boy was I wrong.
The last time the Falcons were in the playoffs was 2012, where the painful loss to the San Francisco 49ers took place and still stings. There have been so many things that have changed about this organization since then, including a new head coach in Dan Quinn and other personnel and front-office changes.
In the second year of this regime’ you are seeing what his process is all about. They are going up against an opponent in Green Bay that is playing at a high level. Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, may be playing the best of his career despite injuries and a young receiving corp. This matchup will be the toughest for the Birds because of what is at stake, despite beating the Packers already. Here are five things to look for in the chess match regarding both these teams:
1. FALCONS DBs vs. PACKERS WRs: While the receivers for Green Bay have been injured and are young, they have performed beautifully for Rodgers. The experienced, Jordy Nelson, due to broken ribs, may not play in this game but Randall Cobb, Davonta Adams, and rookie Geronimo Allison have carried the load, along with TE Jared Cook. In contrast, the Falcons’ secondary has played well and is continually getting better despite not have Desmond Trufant. Jalen Collins, Robert Alford, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen have done a solid job, but will be tested on Sunday.
2. FALCONS OL vs. PACKERS DL: I cannot tell you just how much the addition of center Alex Mack has improved the offensive line for the Falcons. This unit was much maligned last season, but getting Ryan the snap in place vastly improves your chances for success. The defensive line for the Packers is solid and experienced. It is also very formidable against the run, being ranked eighth in the league. The Falcons must absolutely run the football for success to set up everything else they plan on doing on offense.
3. GRADY JARRETT/JONATHAN BABINEAUX vs. T.J. LANG/LANE TAYLOR/COREY LINSLEY: Rodgers may be playing the best of his career in terms of pinpoint accuracy and leadership, but no QB is immune to pressure directly in his face. We have sung the praises of Grady Jarrett this year. He needs to have a monster game along with the old veteran Jonathan Babineaux, who may not get another chance to make it to the big game.
4. KEANU NEAL/DE’VONDRE CAMPBELL/DEION JONES vs. PACKERS TEs: Richard Rodgers and Jared Cook have played excellent for Green Bay, being at the right place at the right time. In the last few years, it is well documented just how troublesome it has been to cover tight ends for a Falcons’ defense. It will be important for the linebacker corps and Keanu Neal to both run and hit and cover the TEs.
5. MATT RYAN vs. “THE HATERS”: Yeah, the haters. Anywhere else in the world, Ryan would be the king of the city. But for whatever reason he has been relegated to continuing to have to prove his worth to the franchise. He has absolutely handled it better than I would have, but I am pretty sure he would like nothing more than to shut up the naysayers. I know his preparation is second to none and that if anyone in this world wants this win, it is definitely “Matty Ice.”
Jamie Walker is a producer and blogger for Sports Radio 92.9 The Game. Follow Jamie on Twitter @coachjdub21 or through email at Jamie.Walker@cbsradio.com.