In one corner is Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, he of the 13 fourth-quarter comebacks or game-winning drives. In the other corner is Packers coach Mike McCarthy, with his 5-15 record in games decided by four points or less.
By now, you've heard "Matty Ice" enough that you're nauseous. But, even for a third-year pro, it's hard to argue with his late-game success. He's led the Falcons to a game-winning score in the fourth quarter or overtime six times this season — including the field goal to beat the Packers in Week 12 and a touchdown to beat the Buccaneers in Week 13.
In the fourth quarters of games with no more than a touchdown margin, Ryan has completed 65.7 percent of his passes. When trailing at any point in the game, he's completed 63.2 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions.
It's much harder to quantify McCarthy's close-game failures because it's almost impossible to differentiate a coaching blunder from poor execution.
However, it should be noted that the four-points-and-less designation is basically a number picked out of a hat to make a point. The Packers' 9-0 win over the Jets — in which his team tacked on two late field goals — doesn't boost McCarthy's close-game record. Nor does the 10-3 victory over Chicago, when the offense scored the winning touchdown 3 minutes into the fourth quarter and the defense iced the game with a last-minute interception. Nor does last week's 21-16 playoff win at Philadelphia, when the defense again iced the game with an interception.
"You have to win the close games in the playoffs," McCarthy said after the Philadelphia game. "We knew we were going to come in here, we knew it was going to be a 60-minute fight. We spent so much time on the overtime rules this week I thought, heck, we might as well go into overtime too. This is the way it's going to be. We're on the road, you play uphill when you get off the bus and you have to overcome the atmosphere that you're playing in, particularly the communication challenge. It feels good."
The defense, which also thwarted the Eagles in Week 1, is the No. 1 reason why the Packers have a shot at turning the tables on the Falcons on Saturday. The Packers have held six opponents to seven points or less. When these teams last met, the Packers shot themselves in the foot with Aaron Rodgers' goal-line fumble and the long kickoff return that set up the Falcons' winning drive. If the Packers can avoid those critical mistakes against a team that has avoided those kind of gaffes all year, they have a great chance of advancing to the NFC championship game.
"Regardless of what has happened, we've been in every ballgame this year," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "Regardless of who's been in, we haven't lost a lot. Those games gave guys experience, time to grow. And a lot of guys have grown up in a short period of time and given us a chance to win."
One mistake could do it
For the season, the Packers' offense got the ball 183 times. That equates to 11.4 possessions per game. That adds some perspective to what happened when the Packers and Falcons met seven weeks ago.
Officially, the Packers got the ball nine times. In reality, though, it was only seven. The Packers got the ball with 8 seconds remaining in the first half and took a knee and 9 seconds remaining in regulation and needing a 75-yard miracle.
"When we are 70-plus plays, we are dangerous as an offense because of our ability to sustain long drives, but also make the big play," McCarthy said in light of getting 59 snaps against Atlanta.
Mistakes are critical in every game and are magnified in the playoffs. But it's even more important than usual against the Falcons. In that first game, there were only the two aforementioned mistakes, and those plays were the clear difference.
"Well, kind of the same thing that we talked about last time we played them, and that's third down conversions, red zone getting touchdowns, and we didn't do that last time," Rodgers said on Tuesday. "We weren't good on third down, red zone I think we had 17 points in four possessions. That's just not going to cut it against a good team like this. They're going to control the ball, Matt (Ryan is) going to limit his mistakes and they're going to run the ball with Michael Turner. Our defense needs to get off the field, and we need to sustain those drives and put them in the end zone for seven."
On the other side of the coin, the Falcons led the NFC with 17 giveaways. The Packers have forced a turnover in 15 of their 17 games. The only games without one? Losses to Atlanta and New England.
"You just have to do all the fundamentals we work on," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You guys watch us every day. We start practice with strip drills, and even though you might not get their with pressure, I think you have to make them feel pressure where a lot of times the timing of the routes don't have time to develop. You can't get frustrated that way. You have to keep coming, keep lining up and playing and sooner or later you'll get your chance and you have to make it."
No place like dome
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
"I think we can throw the ball any day — cold, rain, sleet, snowing, hot," receiver Donald Driver said. "We don't care. We have a great quarterback, we have a great group of receivers who can make plays, regardless. We proved that. We put 45 points up against the Giants."
At that point, Greg Jennings interrupts: "I care, I don't know what he's talking about."
Truth be told, a pass-first attack would rather deal with the crowd noise and other challenges of playing in a dome so they can avoid the cold and wind and snow of, say, Lambeau Field.
Even including his poor one half against Detroit, Rodgers boasts a rating of 115.1 with five touchdowns and only the Jennings-juggled interception this season. Outdoors, his rating is 98.5 with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. For his career, his indoor rating of 106.4 is 10 points higher than his outdoor rating, and his 18 touchdowns and five interceptions are slightly better than hit outdoor totals of 69 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.
"Perfect conditions. I think that's got to help," Rodgers said. "No wind, ball feels great coming off my hand, I get to wear my favorite shoes."
Asked for a receiver's perspective, Jennings said: "What's today's date? We're playing on Jan. 16. If we weren't playing football, we'd be inside the house probably because it's cold outside. I wouldn't go outside and play basketball right now in the cold. I would find somewhere inside, where a gym is, where I'm nice and warm and the weather doesn't affect my jump shot."
On top of that, the Georgia Dome is renowned for being one of the fastest surfaces in the league, and this Packers team has no shortage of speed.
"We've got a lot of speedy guys, a lot of guys that are shifty," Jennings said. "Any time you're inside or on turf, you can make your cuts on a dime and it definitely helps out."
Falcons personnel notes
Atlanta had seven players selected for the Pro Bowl: Ryan (first Pro Bowl); defensive end John Abraham (fourth); tight end Tony Gonzalez (11th); fullback Ovie Mughelli (first); running back Michael Turner (second); special-teamer Eric Weems (first); and receiver Roddy White (third).
— Ryan (3,440 passing yards), Turner (1,371 rushing yards) and White (1,389 receiving yards) reached the 3,000-1,000-1,000 club for their second time together. Ryan, just like Rodgers heading into last week, is 0-1 in his playoff career, with that loss coming to Arizona. In 2008, the Falcons went 11-5 but Ryan had three turnovers in a 30-24 loss. "In the back of my head, I know I'm better prepared than I was a couple of years ago," Ryan said.
— Running behind Mughelli, Turner led the NFC in rushing, with more than half of his yards coming after contact. He tied for eighth in the league with 32 rushes of 10-plus yards, and has scored 39 touchdowns in his three seasons against Atlanta. He's averaging just 3.8 yards per carry this season but ranks sixth in the league with a 4.3 average once he gets past 20 carries. He's aiming for his third consecutive game with 110-plus yards and a touchdown against the Packers.
— White led the NFL with 115 receptions and 73 receiving first downs, as well as the NFC in yards with a franchise-record 1,389. In his only playoff game, at Arizona two years ago, he caught 11 passes. "I clearly think Roddy is one of the best receivers in the game," McCarthy said. "He has size, speed, excellent ability to go get the football in tight spaces. He's had an incredible year down there and has really come into his own the last couple years. Special player."
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
— Weems, whose long kickoff return against Green Bay set up the winning field goal, is the only player in the NFC this season who scored touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns. "Oh, gosh, Eric Weems is such a good story," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "College free agent that ends up going to the Pro Bowl this year as a special-teams player. He's done a very good job as our kickoff and punt returner. Probably the thing that gets overlooked is his coverage prowess. He does a super job in covering kicks on kickoffs and playing the gunner in our punt coverage team. He's really done a nice job in helping us with our drive starts on the return game and he's done a very good job — he leads our team in tackles inside the 20 on kickoff coverage."
— Abraham, who finished fourth in the NFL with 13 sacks, ranks second in the NFL with 102.5 sacks since entering the league in 2000. He's had a sack in each of the last two games against the Packers. He had 16.5 sacks in 2008 but just 5.5 last season. "A lot of that I attribute to us as a coaching staff," Smith said. "People started to scheme John a little bit more because of his success the year he had in Year 1 and we needed to do a better job of helping him out. Then we lost a defensive tackle (Peria Jerry) that hurt with pressure up the middle. John has had an extraordinary season for us in terms of rushing the passer."
— For the first time since 1997 and 1998, the Packers finished the season ranked in the top 10 on offense and defense for consecutive seasons. This year, they finished fifth on defense and ninth on offense. In all five of McCarthy's seasons, the Packers have finished in the top 10 on offense. The only other team on a five-year run of top-10 offenses is New Orleans.
— The Packers, as you know, lost all six of their games by three or four points, with a combined total of 20 points in their defeats. What you might not have known is they didn't trail by more than a touchdown all season, the first time that's happened in the NFL since the merger in 1970. The 1969 Vikings were the last team to never trail by more than seven points. On average, the Packers led for 35:12 per game while trailing for 9:44.
— The Falcons have the reputation for being the running team and the Packers for being the passing team. And while that's true, it's not as black-and-white as you might think. Ryan threw the ball 571 times compared to 541 for Rodgers and Matt Flynn. For the season, the Falcons ran the ball 45.3 percent of the time compared to 42.1 percent for the Packers. Atlanta ran 1,097 total plays compared to 1,000 for the Packers.
— Matt Ryan boasts a career home record of 20-2. When he tops a passer rating of 100, he's a perfect 16-0, including 7-0 this season. His rating in the Week 12 game against Green Bay, when he completed 24-of-28 passes, was 107.9.
— Last season, Rodgers' third-down passer rating of 133.5 was the best since Kurt Warner's 137.3 in 1999. After a slow start, Rodgers returned to form down the stretch. In his last six games, Rodgers completed 65.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and no interceptions on third down. His rating of 133.7 during that span trailed only Tom Brady's 136.3.
— Why do the Packers give it to Kuhn so often in short-yardage situations? Perhaps because he's lost yards on four of 84 carries, with that rate of 4.8 percent being the fifth-best in the league. Plus, he's converted a third-ranked 83.3 percent of his carries on third-and-1 and third-and-2. If there's a crease, he's going to find it.
— If you're looking for an omen against the Falcons, nine teams with at least 13 regular-season wins bowed out of the postseason after one game. That includes six teams in the last four years: San Diego and Baltimore in 2006, Indianapolis and Dallas in 2007, Tennessee in 2008 and San Diego last season.
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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.