Saturday playoff game scout

Despite traveling to play an Atlanta team that finished the regular season 14-2, the Packers are brimming with confidence. In the AFC, the Ravens and Steelers are prepping for a trash-talking brawl.

Saturday
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

Sunday
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
New York Jets at New England Patriots


Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

KICKOFF: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 1/15/11
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf


KEYS TO THE GAME

The Ravens rededicated themselves to a more physical offensive approach since the last meeting, and haven't lost in the ensuing five games. But the Steelers have the league's No. 1-ranked run defense and limited Ravens RB Ray Rice to 20 and 32 rushing yards during the regular season - his two lowest outputs of the season. QB Joe Flacco will have to lead the offense in the face of the blitz. TE Todd Heap is coming off a 10-catch performance and will be a mismatch against Pittsburgh's linebackers and safeties.

Ben Roethlisberger will be prepared to take a beating - he suffered a broken nose in the last meeting and the Ravens will aggressively attack the Steelers' subpar pass blocking. Pittsburgh will attempt to establish RB Rashard Mendenhall early on, but knows it will likely have to move the ball through the air. The emergence of young WR Emmanuel Sanders has provided another valuable outlet and the speed of Mike Wallace will help stretch a Ravens defense susceptible to completions over the top.

FAST FACTS

The last four meetings have all been decided by three points.

  • Flacco has tied an NFL record with four career road playoff wins as a starter.

  • Heinz Field received its third new grass surface this season following the NHL's Winter Classic.

  • Roethlisberger has won his last six starts against the Ravens.

    RAVENS

    Terrell Suggs expressed his feelings about the Pittsburgh Steelers a couple of days before the divisional playoff game at Heinz field, and the Baltimore linebacker did it in a brash way.

    Suggs wore a black T-shirt read, "Hey Pittsburgh" at the top with a giant purple Raven offering a one-fingered salute. But Suggs said he's not trying to fan the flames of a rivalry that is already considered one of the most intense in the NFL.

    "No, there ain't no message," he said. "Like I said, I put on for my city. They rep their city, and I'm repping mine. So here we go."

    This isn't the first time Suggs has used fashion to make a statement. In training camp before the 2009 season, he wore black t-shirt with the letters "YBYSA" on the front and the saying "You Bet Your Sweet (expletive) I hate the Steelers" on the back.

    Suggs said he's not concerned about receiving a backlash from Pittsburgh fans over the shirt.

    "Do I seem worried? This game is going to be what it is regardless," he said. "It's a physical dogfight, so I ain't expecting nothing different. And this is the shirt I wore this morning. This is just the shirt I chose."

    A little later, on the topic of getting verbally pelted by Steelers fans, Suggs said, "I don't care. I don't play for them. I think they hate all of us just the same. If I get a little bit more, hey, that's good."

    Still, after joking that he didn't love Pittsburgh, Suggs said he has a neutral view of the Ravens' fiercest rivals.

    "I don't have any more animosity, any more beef with any one team in the NFL," he said. "It's just a rivalry game, a championship game, and let's go."

    Suggs almost didn't make it to the makeshift podium inside the team's training facility in Owings Mills as inside linebacker Ray Lewis grabbed him in a bear-hug and tried to persuade him to change his shirt.

    Suggs was followed by tight end Todd Heap, who played with the linebacker at Arizona State. Heap spotted the T-shirt, turned to the microphone and deadpanned, "That's my ASU buddy. Sometimes we claim him."

    Meanwhile, Baltimore starting cornerback Chris Carr expressed optimism that he will be able to play in Saturday's AFC Divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers despite a thigh injury.

    But Carr did not practice Thursday and conceded that his status will be determined during pre-game warmups.

    "If I don't feel good, then I won't go," he said. "But I feel like I will feel well enough on Saturday. Having today off and then tomorrow and the next day, and we don't play until 4:30. So that's good. So I feel like I'll feel good after that."

    Carr, who had been limited in practice on Wednesday, declined to get into any specifics about the injury, including when it first occurred. But he said the injury hasn't prevented him from preparing off-the-field to play against the Steelers.

    "It's one of those things where you think you're going to be fine and it doesn't seem too serious," Carr said. "I felt like I'm going to be able to play Saturday. But with certain injuries, you never know exactly how you're going to feel."

    STEELERS

    After defense of their Super Bowl XLIII title fell flat on their face in 2009, the Steelers are ready to mount another drive to try to win their eighth Lombardi trophy when they open the playoff Saturday at home.

    A year out of the playoffs has whetted their appetite for another.

    "It's big. It's great to have a playoff game at home in front of Steeler Nation," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "To go against a great rival like the Ravens, that's the way you want it. You want it to be great football, you want it to be the best against the best and we feel good about our chances."

    The past four games between the teams have been decided by three points. Of the past seven, all have been close with none more than four points except the AFC Championship Game in 2008 when the Steelers held a two-point lead with the Ravens driving late. Troy Polamalu ended that drive and the game with an interception he returned for a touchdown.

    "One turnover, one sack, one goal-line stand makes all the difference in winning these types of games," Polamalu said. "That's why it's such a chess match every time we play them. Every single inch, every possession, every field position you have, whether good or bad, has so much to do with the outcome of the game. That's what's so awesome about watching this game."

    The Steelers are a relatively healthy team with a week off after they polished off the regular season Jan. 2 by pounding the Cleveland Browns 41-9 to lock up their third AFC North Division title in four years and the No. 2 seed in the conference.

    It gave them time to rest some of their wounded and older players and work on things they normally would not have had time to do.

    "I thought we had a very productive week last week," coach Mike Tomlin said. "No question there are always issues when you don't play a week. But I would rather have those issues rather than having to play Wild Card weekend."


    Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

    KICKOFF: Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET
    GAMEDATE: 1/15/11
    SURFACE: Field Turf
    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.

    FAST FACTS

    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.

    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."

    PACKERS

    The confidence coursing through the team's facilities is so thick and irrefutable that even head coach Mike McCarthy isn't bashful to speak with a hint of braggadocio.

    "We are fully preparing and expect to win the football game," McCarthy said.

    Just how the Packers will go about backing up McCarthy's air of conviction is best left unsaid.

    Engaging the Atlanta Falcons in a guessing game for the NFC divisional playoff Saturday night at the Georgia Dome goes with the territory with so much on the line.

    "I think you need to just realize that it's the playoffs and each possession has to have more importance and significance," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "There's an urgency level that picks up with all of the guys. We know what we're playing for."

    Fresh off disposing of the third-seeded Philadelphia Eagles 21-16 in the wild-card round Sunday, the upstart Packers as the No. 6 seed will return to the NFC Championship for the second time in four years if they turn the tables on the top-seeded Falcons.

    Seven weeks earlier, on Nov. 28, Atlanta squeaked by visiting Green Bay 20-17 on a field goal by Matt Bryant in the final seconds of what turned out to be a late-season preview for a juicy postseason matchup.

    The Packers left the Georgia Dome that afternoon feeling they were the better team. If not for an inopportune fumble by Rodgers on a goal-line sneak in the first half, the victory would have been Green Bay's thanks to an otherwise foolproof game plan on offense.

    McCarthy, the play caller, in so many formations declared that he would be attacking the Falcons at their weakest point. "Spread" was the operative word. Out of the 59 snaps he took, Rodgers was in shotgun 42 times, and of those, the Packers went with an empty backfield 18 times.

    "I think it was very productive. The statistics speak for themselves," McCarthy said in retrospect. "The wins and losses were definitely in our favor."

    Save for his costly turnover, the only one of the game for both teams, Rodgers had one of his best performances of another superb season. He went 26-of-35 for 344 yards with a touchdown.

    What's more, Rodgers accounted for nearly all of Green Bay's 418 total yards. He pulled the football down 12 times and gained 51 yards, scoring a touchdown on another 1-yard sneak.

    "Last time, I was the (team's) leading rusher," Rodgers said this week. "Hopefully, that's not the case again."

    To that end, the Packers on offense probably won't be as predictable Saturday as they had to be in the first encounter with the Falcons when the absence of a bona fide rusher forced McCarthy's hand to pick on a sluggish secondary.

    Green Bay, which has been without featured back Ryan Grant since he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1, finally might have the missing piece to round out a unit that would be tempting fate in trying to get to the Super Bowl on the pass alone. Unheralded James Starks buoyed the aspirations by rushing for 123 yards — a team rookie record in the playoffs — in the win over the Eagles.

    Rodgers rightly called the production, which was just the second 100-yard game by a Packers back this season, "a little bit of an anomaly."

    "(But) you've got to give credit to James and the way he prepared last week," Rodgers said. "He was the hot guy, and he got the ball. Every week, you never know who's going to get the majority of the carries. I'm just hopeful it's not going to be me this week."

    Such is the guessing game that the Packers are able to play this week as McCarthy cooks up a game plan that will allow the offense to spend more time on the Georgia Dome turf after the Falcons worked their ball-control attack to a T seven weeks ago.

    "When we are (at) 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. "We have the ability to do both, and that's what you want as an offense because there is not just one certain way we need to play to win a game."


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