MATCHUPS TO WATCH
In the trenches and perimeter
For me it's all about how the offensive lines can protect their quarterbacks. We talked about John Abraham in our first Behind Enemy Lines piece, and we all know about Clay Matthews. Can those players be contained by the offensive lines? Obviously, the big difference in the two offenses is Michael Turner being a bit more seasoned than James Starks. But at the end of the day, will we point toward one of those players as the reason their team wins? Possibly. And also, what will the two defensive backfields do against the star receivers — Roddy White and Greg Jennings? That'll be fun to watch. It's a great list of matchups that show you how close these two teams are heading into Sunday's game.
The 32-year-old Abraham put together one of his best seasons with 13 sacks, ranking fifth in the league right behind the 13.5 of Matthews. Abraham had the only sack of Aaron Rodgers in Atlanta's three-point win over Green Bay in late November. The Packers' pass protection has been solid of late, but rookie Bulaga has come under fire for a rash of penalties — though he was terrific against the Eagles. The Falcons like to move Abraham from side to side, though isolating the 11th-year pro on Bulaga, who has been hindered by a sore shoulder this week, may be their approach.
If Green Bay is successful again in keeping Rodgers upright, the prospects for another productive aerial display are good after he shredded Atlanta's suspect secondary for 344 yards in the regular-season meeting. Robinson and Grimes have the speed to run with Jennings and Driver, but Green Bay's top duo gets the edge with deceptive route running and the height advantage to win balls in the air. The Packers want to get Jennings back on track after he had a season-worst one catch in the wild-card win against Philadelphia. Taking Jennings away was the main emphasis of their game plan, and he saw two defenders on every snap. Driver picked up some of the slack with a team-high five catches, including two third-down conversions on the Packers' third touchdown drive. Jennings was targeted eight times against the Falcons in the first go-around and flourished with five receptions for 119 yards.
Packers RB James Starks vs. MLB Curtis Lofton
Starks had the stunning 123-yard game against Philadelphia, but can he back it up with another big game? The Falcons' defense smothered the Packers' rushing attack in Week 12. The physical Lofton led the Falcons with 142 tackles during the regular season but is battling a bum knee. The Packers, using their inverted wishbone formation, were able to power the ball at the Eagles with Starks, a sixth-round pick from Buffalo. They brought him along slowly after he recovered from an early season injury. Was he a one-hit wonder or will Lofton and Co. do what they did in the first matchup, when the Packers backs gained 26 yards on 11 carries with Brandon Jackson getting 12 of those on one carry?
Packers OLB Clay Matthews vs. Falcons RT Tyson Clabo
Matthews, The Sporting News Defensive Player of the Year after finishing with 13 sacks, added another against Michael Vick last weekend. The underrated Clabo, a first alternate for the Pro Bow, dominated Matthews in their previous meeting and held him sackless. He did receive some help periodically but mostly Clabo handled him one-on-one, with his power prevailing over Matthews' speed and tenacity.
THE PACKERS WILL WIN BECAUSE ...
... They have improved in two areas since Week 12. First, Starks will provide just enough balance for the Packers to turn the tables. Second, their special teams — while not a strength — has been playing at a much higher level, which should help eliminate the Falcons' overwhelming advantage in field position in the first game.
THE PACKERS WILL LOSE BECAUSE ...
... They are the team more apt to make a mistake, and this is what this game figures to come down to. The Falcons have the fewest penalties in the NFL and the fewest giveaways in the NFC. They can ride a reliable running game while more of the pressure to win the game will fall on Rodgers.
THE FALCONS WILL WIN BECAUSE ...
They have all the intangibles in their favor. Not only are they a good team, but they're well-coached, playing at home, remarkably healthy and coming off a bye. (By Packer Report's unofficial count, the Packers lost more games to starters than any team in the league while the Falcons lost the least.) All of those things will tip the scales between two evenly matched clubs.
THE FALCONS WILL LOSE BECAUSE ...
For all the talk about "Matty Ice," if this game comes down to quarterbacks, the Packers have the advantage. It's not that Rodgers has a huge edge over Matt Ryan. It's that Rodgers has the advantage with his wideouts against the Falcons' secondary compared to Ryan's targets against the Packers' secondary.
Bill Huber: I had been leaning to the Packers in this game but the things that are left unnoticed tend to make a difference this time of year. It's not flashy to talk about giveaways and penalties and time of possession, but the Falcons have the advantages in all of those departments. It will be a near-replay of the last game, right down to the 20-17 final score.
Bill Shanks: I'm not going to be shocked if it's a carbon-copy of the game from the regular season — tight, close, down to the last minute. These two teams are too good to have one run away with it. I'll predict Atlanta 23 Green Bay 20, which again, is very close to what we saw in late November.
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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.