Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Kickoff: Saturday, 7:15 p.m.
TV: FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver, Chris Rose)
Keys to the game
QB Aaron Rodgers threw for 344 yards in the regular-season meeting — the Falcons won the game 20-17 on a field goal with nine seconds left — as he worked out of the shotgun 42 times out of 59 snaps, including 18 empty-backfield sets. Green Bay was largely one-dimensional and coach Mike McCarthy attacked the Falcons with a slew of different formations. With RB James Starks coming off a franchise postseason rookie record 123 rushing yards at Philadelphia, McCarthy can devise a more balanced attack to keep Atlanta off-balance, control the ball more and set up vertical shots.
The Falcons put on a clinic in Week 12, with RB Michael Turner rushing for 110 yards and a touchdown to set up a highly efficient passing attack (Ryan completed 24-of-28 passes). The Packers' defensive strength lies in their pass rush and ball-hawking secondary. Green Bay did not tackle well in the first meeting and the Falcons will again attempt to establish Turner out of the gate, sustain drives and control the tempo. WR Roddy White had just five catches for 49 yards in the first meeting, but Ryan spread the ball to nine different receivers while focusing on the intermediate passing game.
Week 12 was one of only two games this season in which Green Bay failed to create a turnover. ... The Falcons have three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. ... Falcons QB Matt Ryan is 20-2 at home as a starter.
Inside the numbers
Packers: Ninth on offense (24th rushing, fifth passing) and fifth on defense (18th rushing, fifth passing). Falcons: 16th on offense (12th rushing, 15th passing) and eighth on defense (fifth rushing, 11th passing).
By the numbers
1 — Number of wins by the Packers in five road games in the divisional round since 1993.
2 — Games in which the Packers defense hasn't produced a takeaway, Nov. 28 at the Atlanta Falcons and Dec. 19 at the New England Patriots. Green Bay lost both games.
Tied 13-13. The Falcons evened the all-time record on Nov. 28 when they prevailed 20-17 on a 47-yard field goal by Matt Bryant with 9 seconds to play at the Georgia Dome. The Packers are 1-2 in Atlanta since the dome opened in 1992. The teams split their previous two postseason meetings, both in the NFC wild-card round at Green Bay — the Brett Favre-led Packers won 37-20 in the 1995 season, and the Michael Vick-led Falcons pulled off a 27-7 upset victory in the 2002 season.
Inside the Falcons
The Falcons don't plan to play against the ghost of Curly Lambeau.
The Green Bay Packers have been around since 1919 and have a rich and bountiful playoff history.
They have been in the playoffs 26 times, won 12 league championships, including three Super Bowls.
Conversely, the Falcons are making just their 10th playoff appearance in team history and have not won any league championships, Super Bowl or otherwise. This is just the franchise's second playoff appearance as a No. 1 seed since being founded in 1966.
"I don't think that matters at all," Falcons center Todd McClure said. "The bottom line is that Saturday at 8 (p.m.), when they put the ball out there, nobody is going to be thinking about Reggie White or Bret Favre. It's you against the guy across from you. History doesn't factor into that at all."
The Falcons, who have posted three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in team history, are trying to establish a winning tradition.
"You just want to win every year," wide receiver Roddy White said. "I think we have a group of core players here that can take this team on and on and on."
Quarterback Matt Ryan earned the nickname Matty Ice from some high school buddies for his performance under pressure, and he has continued to thrive at crunch time in the NFL.
He's led the Falcons to 13 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, including a 20-17 victory over Green Bay at the Georgia Dome on Nov. 28. He also led game-winning drives over New Orleans, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Tampa Bay this season.
"I think he's shown his ability under pressure and in the fourth quarter of games, to play at a high level," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said. "In the NFL, teams and quarterbacks in particular are judged on how did they play in the last quarter of the game, in the big games how did they play?"
Well, Ryan is getting ready to play in the biggest game of his NFL career.
He's much more in control than he was in his rookie season when the Falcons faced Arizona in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
"I think at this point in my career — three years into it as opposed to going into my first year — my preparation is much better than it was a couple of years ago," Ryan said. "In the back of my head, I know I'm better prepared than I was a couple of years ago."
In the Arizona game, Ryan's first pass attempt was intercepted. He went on to set a rookie postseason record with 26 completions, but remembers the bumpy start.
"You've got to settle down pretty quick after you throw a pick on your first pass," Ryan said. "For the most part, I think I responded pretty well to it, but again, we've just got to be better with the football."
Ryan remembers that Arizona turned three turnovers into 14 points.
"I think that's the name of the game in the playoffs, possessing the football and not giving them stupid turnovers," Ryan said.
Ryan, who is 2-0 as a starter against the Packers, plans to make the most of his second postseason appearance.
"The opportunities don't come around often," Ryan said. "The playoffs are not easy to get to. It's not easy to advance. It's important to put your best out there when you have the opportunity."
The Packers could go one of two ways with their diversified offense. They made liberal use of the pass with only 11 rushing attempts by running backs in the narrow loss to the Falcons in Week 12. A preponderance of spread formations, including 18 plays out of empty sets, had the Atlanta defense on its heels. Yet, the Falcons surely have a better handle on that for the rematch.
"I think we just need to stick to what's been working," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We obviously had great balance against Philadelphia (in the wild-card win Sunday), but we're going to have to go into the game with our plan and see what's working early on and stick to what we do best and hopefully be able to move the ball effectively against them."
That might mean a heavy dose of running the football with James Starks a second straight week, although the rookie no longer is obscure after he piled up 123 yards in 23 carries against the unsuspecting Eagles. The Falcons will provide a stiffer challenge up front, so if Starks isn't producing right away, head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy won't be averse to quickly fall into one-dimensional mode and take his chances.
The charge for the Green Bay defense is to keep Atlanta from generating methodical drives of five-plus minutes that were the rage in the first meeting. To do so, the Packers will need to speed up the tempo by getting after quarterback Matt Ryan with steady pressure packages and try to rattle him into a rare mistake. Ryan, who was sacked only twice, completed all but four of his 28 passes in the teams' first encounter.
Pro Bowl back Michael Turner was a difference maker in that game with 23 carries for 110 yards. To make sure they hem Turner in with enough bodies, the Packers may load the box and trust one-on-one pass coverage on the outside from Tramon Williams and Sam Shields against the explosive Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.