Date/Start Time- Sunday, January 22nd- 3:05 PM EST
Line/Point Spread- Atlanta by 4.5
In the NFC Divisional round this past weekend, number two seed Atlanta dismantled Seattle 36-20 in only their second playoff meeting in franchise history. Meanwhile, in Arlington the next day, number one seed (13-3) Dallas took on the red-hot Packers.
In that game, which ended up with a Packers’ 34-31 victory, the Packers’ offense early on looked unstoppable, even without two Pro Bowlers — running back Eddie Lacy (IR) and receiver Jordy Nelson (ribs).
Cowboys’ fans were shocked by the huge deficit early. Green Bay took a commanding 21-3 lead up until the 6:03 mark in the second quarter. The Packers’ first three drives all led to touchdowns, two of which were by Ty Montgomery rushing attempts. After that 21-3 lead, Dallas was able to shake off the dust from their previous week; a bye week.
Dallas’ next drive, Dak Prescott went 3-3, with 66 passing yards and a touchdown pass. Wide-out, Pro Bowler, Dez Bryant torched the Packers’ secondary, namely rookie strong safety Kentrell Brice. Bryant took a 40-yard pass all the way to the house.
On the next Green Bay drive, after going three and out, which included two Rodgers’ incompletions, Dallas was able to feed off of the Bryant touchdown and their defense. After punting on their first two drives, Dallas scored points on the next two, the fourth drive culminated in a 33-yard kick by Dan Bailey, as they cut Green Bay’s lead to 8.
At the start of the second half, Green Bay scored on a 3:35 minute drive, on a 3-yard Jared Cook pass, perhaps leaning the momentum back in Green Bay’s favor. After the two teams consecutively threw interceptions, Dallas scored on their final three drives. They had the Packers backed up and Dallas was on the verge of winning and making their first conference championship game since 1995. Green Bay’s offensive line held up, Rodgers and Cook were in unison and Green Bay somehow made it through a tough ending.
On the day, Prescott was impressive during blitz packages, going 2-2, with two touchdown passes and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Prescott’s athleticism and strong tendency to run the play action pass a lot gives opposing defensive lines nightmares.
When he’s missing throws, namely screen passes (one of which was intercepted by corner Micah Hyde), he’s making plays with his legs. He’s definitely in the running for the NFL’s Rookie of The Year Award, as is his teammate, Pro Bowler, Ezekiel Elliott. In his playoff debut, Elliott racked up over 100 rushing yards (125, 5.7 yards per carry), including 80 yards after contact. The trio of Prescott, Elliott and Bryant are a scary match-up for any opposing defensive lines and defensive backs.
Despite bad coverage and comfort outside the pocket for Aaron Rodgers, Cowboys’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli started to slowly dial up the pressure, creating blitz packages from outside and towards the middle. The change in philosophy worked. Rodgers started to feel the heat, which led to an interception in the third quarter by free safety Jeff Heath, which was good enough for 27 yards and, most importantly for Dallas, a stalled Packers’ drive.
Despite the success for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in their playoff debuts, without a doubt the highlight of the game was the incredible 35-yard Rodgers’ bomb to tight end Jared Cook. It’s perhaps the most significant career play for Cook, and one of Rodgers’ finest moments.
Prior to the catch, the Packers were reeling after a 21-3 lead wasted, as the game was deadlocked 31-31 with 12 seconds left. The previous play, which was also targeted towards Cook, led to an incomplete pass on a drag route. Green Bay was only on it’s 32 yard line, with only one timeout left and the clock ticking away.
The throw and the elusiveness by Rodgers was incredible. Even greater was the Cook catch, which took incredible patience and the awareness of staying in bounds. After the catch, he retained possession of the ball and somehow kept both feet in bounds. Due to the incredible catch, Green Bay was now in field-goal range. Kicker Mason Crosby had a solid year- a 93.3 field goal completion percentage (he’s 24/25 since Week 11 at Washington) and a perfect 9/9 in two playoff games.
After a Cowboys’ timeout to ice the kicker, Crosby nailed a 51-yarder to send the Packers to Atlanta. At first glance, the second field goal attempt looked as if it was going to miss, as it approached the left goal post, but somehow it swung back around like a Doc Gooden curveball.
In their last five seasons (prior to this postseason) Green Bay’s 1-3 in road playoff games. Their only road playoff win in the past five seasons came last postseason at Washington (35-18).
With the match-up this weekend, Green Bay will face Atlanta for the fourth time (Green Bay’s 1-2 in those meetings), and the first since January of 2011 at the Georgia Dome. Ironically, after that 48-21 Packers’ divisional round win, they went on to win the Super Bowl almost a month later. Atlanta’s only playoff win vs. Green Bay was in January of 2003.
All-Pro quarterback Matt Ryan not only arguably had the best season for a Falcons’ QB but one for any quarterback in NFL history. Ryan threw for 38 touchdown passes, a career high, second best only to — ironically — Aaron Rodgers’ 40. Ryan led the league in net yards per pass attempt (9.3), yards per completion (13.3), quarterback rating (117.1) and approximate value (21).
Ryan’s 117.1 passer rating not only led the league but it ranks as the fifth best all-time in NFL single-season statistics. Only Rodgers (122.5 in 2011), Peyton Manning (121.1 in 2004), Nick Foles (119.2 in 2013), and Tom Brady (117.2 in 2007) were better. To summarize, Ryan couldn’t of been better.
His pinpoint accuracy, consistency and constant adjustments is only part of what made him so great this season.
To compliment Matt Ryan, in developing the chemistry between the two, All-Pro receiver Julio Jones also was phenomenal throughout the season. Despite only six touchdown catches, he accumulated 1409 receiving yards, good enough for second best in the league (behind only T.Y. Hilton’s 1448). After being drafted sixth overall in 2011, Jones has certainly lived up to his hype and potential (from his days at Alabama), as he made his fourth Pro Bowl appearance.
Despite their lack of success on defense (see below), outside linebacker Vic Beasley had a remarkable, standout, season- leading the league in sacks (15.5). He was also the NFC defensive player of the week in week 14.
This season, no Falcons’ defender had more than 75 tackles and Beasley was the only member on the defensive line to make a significant contribution (no other player had more than five sacks). Despite their defensive struggles this season, their offensive is unstoppable and has yet to be challenged.
In that Seattle game, Atlanta put up 422 total yards on what’s arguably a top 2 defensive unit in the league. The big problem/x’s and o’s factor is the fact that All-Pro defensive back Earl Thomas suffered a season-ending broken tibia injury that sidelined him for the remaining six games of the season. To add fuel to the fire, Sherman, another fine defensive back, getting injured left Seattle’s secondary depleted and unable to handle a receiver like Julio Jones.
On a seven-yard pass from Matt Ryan, Jones scored at the end of the second quarter to tie the game at 7-7. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson made crucial mistakes within impactful drives and scenarios. Atlanta was able to run out the clock, run the ball with ease, and come out with a victory vs. a tough and respectable, yet depleted, Seattle team. Prior to his two interceptions, Russell Wilson hadn’t thrown an interception in three straight games and 107 snaps. Atlanta had five players that had at least three or more catches in that game.
Wilson struggled mightily under pressure, going 4/13, with an interception and two sacks. Meanwhile, against the Falcons’ defensive line’s blitzes, he went only 2/5 and 21 yards.
Matt Ryan was not only strong against the blitz but when under no pressure. Against Seattle’s blitzes, he was 9/13 with 11.3 yards per attempt. When under no pressure, he went 22/30, throwing for three touchdowns. Can he have a bad game this season eventually? We’ll see.
News and Notes
-In Aaron Rodgers’ last five postseason games (3-2), he has a 90.6 quarterback rating, a, touchdown-interception ratio of 11-4 and 6.9 yards per attempt. In that 48-21 playoff win at Atlanta, Rodgers threw for 366 yards, four touchdowns (three passing) and 10.2 yards per attempt. Fortunately for Rodgers, Atlanta’s defense this year ranked as one of the worst in the league.
-Atlanta’s defense this year ranked fifth among the worst opposing quarterback’s passing yards (4267), rushing yards per attempt (4.5), and they allowed over 406 points (406).
Micah Hyde vs. Julio Jones
Jones’ 40-yard dash time is 4.39. Hyde’s is 4.52.
Despite Hyde arguably being the faster of the two, Jones has 23 pounds on Hyde (220-1997) and has four inches in height measurements (6-4 vs. 6-0). In week four this season vs. Carolina, which culminated in a 48-33 win, Jones had a whopping 300 receiving yards and 12 catches. His 300 yards ranks sixth best all-time in single-season receiving yards and the most all-time for a Falcons’ player.
As for Hyde, while he’s made more plays this year, he remains to be nothing more than an inconsistent, on-and-off defensive back. He struggled especially in a week 10 47-25 loss at Tennessee. Titans’ tight end Delanie Walker had nine catches and 124 yards that game. In a week nine 31-26 loss to Indianapolis, Hyde suffered a shoulder injury- perhaps that plays a tiny part of his recent play.
Hyde’s a free agent this off-season, so perhaps Green Bay cuts him loose, having Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, without a doubt the better of the two, around at least two-more years.
Jordy Nelson is doubtful for the game, having suffered bruised ribs vs. the Giants. He missed the match against the Cowboys, and according to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, Nelson is a long shot to play against Atlanta.
Although Atlanta’s offense is arguably the best in the league this year, Green Bay is on fire, having won eight straight. Atlanta had the upper hand this past weekend vs. Seattle, since the Seahawks’ All-Pro corner Richard Sherman wasn’t 100 percent healthy. According to Seattle head coach Pete Carroll, Sherman suffered an MCL injury in the second half of that game.
Green Bay has remained poised, confident and solid with the ball during their winning streak.
Player of the Game Prediction- Aaron Rodgers
Game Prediction- Green Bay- 41-38