Preview: NFC Championship Game

by Brandon Martin

On January 22, the Green Bay Packers will travel to the Peach state to face the Atlanta Falcons in what will be the last ever game played in the famed Georgia Dome. The winner of this game will advance to Super Bowl 51.

The matchup has the makings of one of the most exciting games in recent history as two explosive offenses go head to head for the right to call themselves champions of the NFC. The last time these two teams met up in the postseason was in 2010, a matchup which Green Bay won 42-21.

It should be another high scoring game, but maybe a more in-depth look at the upcoming NFC Championship game can paint a fuller picture.

How They Got Here

These two teams couldn’t have taken any more different roads this season. Atlanta cruised through the regular season with an 11-5 record and following their Week 11 bye went on to post a 5-1 record with the one loss coming to the AFC West winners, Kansas City Chiefs, in a one-point defeat.

Atlanta used that 11-5 record t move straight to the two-seed and a first-round bye, before matching up with Seattle in a relatively easy defeat of the Seattle Seahawks 36-20. Meanwhile, Green Bay faced a rocky 10-6 regular season in which they didn’t clinch a postseason birth until Week 17.

The Packers faced a massive challenge when they found themselves 4-6 after a four-game losing streak. Fortunately for the Pack, the team rebounded to win their next six and take the hot hand into the playoffs.

Unlike Atlanta, Green Bay had a first round date with the New York Giants, which eventually turned into a 38-13 victory in a game that was very competitive early.

In round two, Green Bay nearly won a ticket home after the Dallas Cowboys overcame an early 21-3 deficit to tie the game up at 31. However, a last second kick from Mason Crosby saved the day and ended Dallas’s year early with a 34-31 loss.

Key Match Ups

imageJulio Jones (93.1 PFF Grade) vs. Ladarius Gunter (70.0 PFF Grade)

Atlanta possesses one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL in Julio Jones. Jones posted 1,409 yards and six touchdowns this year and was Matt Ryan’s most trusted receivers. His 6-foot-3 frame gives him a distinct advantage over almost every corner he was faced with this season and will certainly look to use his size and skills against a battered Green Bay secondary.

Without standout CB, Sam Shields, for most of the year, and limited games from second-year corner Damarious Randall, Green Bay has been running a M.A.S.H. unit in the secondary. These injuries have lead former undrafted free agent Ladarius Gunter into a starting role.

Gunter has shadowed Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant the past two weeks and done a decent, but not spectacular job. He will look to hold off Julio which is much easier said than done.

 

Bryan Bulaga (86.2 PFF Grade) vs. Vic Beasley (79.2 PFF Grade)

Atlanta’s defense finally began to find its strides this season thanks to a rejuvenated defensive line lead by NFL’s sack leader, Vic Beasley.

With 15.5 sacks this year, Beasley terrorized offensive tackles everywhere. However, Sunday he faces off against one of the NFL’s best tackles. Bulaga has been Aaron Rodger’s right-hand man in protection this year.

Beasley will have to use his dominating presence to disorientate Rodgers to avoid allowing him to make plays like this.

Aaron Rodgers (93.7 PFF Grade) vs. Matt Ryan (92.6 PFF Grade)

Not often do we get a game that features two MVP candidate quarterbacks. Both quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards and connected for over 35 touchdowns this season.

This game has the potential to turn into an aerial showcase as the QBs look to strike faster than one another. Although the MVP award is given to the best player of the regular season, the winner of this gamer could turn the MVP race in their favor.

 

Players to Watch

Atlanta Falcons:

NFL: OCT 30 Packers at Falcons

Devonta Freeman (76.5)

If Atlanta wants to win this game, they will need to take advantage of Freeman. Freeman is one of the NFL’s most explosive runners and has a good mix of speed and quickness. Atlanta’s offense thrives when he performs well.

In Atlanta wins, Freeman averaged 5.3 yards per tote opposed to only 3.4 yards in losses. Freeman also feels more at home in the Georgia Dome as he only scored one TD away from the home this season. I expect a big day from Freeman against a defense that gave up 125 yards to Ezekiel Elliot a week ago.

Taylor Gabriel (82.4)

Looking at Gabriel’s stats (35 catches, 579 yards) you might not expect a lot from him, but Gabriel has really come on late in the year. The slot receiver has accounted for seven TDs this season, showing off his dazzling speed as he blazes past defenders and takes the top off of defenses.

He also has a few rushing attempts under his belt this year and is an overall offensive weapon. He could be a real wrinkle for Kyle Shanahan and the Falcons’ offense on Sunday.

Keanu Neal (81.4)

A lot of people were shocked when Atlanta took Neal in the first round of this year’s NFL draft, but his production and performance this year is not in question. Neal’s been a crucial piece in Atlanta’s improvement on the defensive side of the football this season.

With 106 tackles, Neal’s presence in the run game helped limit opposing offenses to around 100 yards per contest. One area where Neal needs to step up in this game will be in coverage. Without a single interception to Neal’s name this year, Rodgers won’t be afraid to test him deep.

 

Green Bay Packers:

mike-daniels-nfl-nfc-divisional-green-bay-packers-arizona-cardinals-850x560
Jordy Nelson (84.0)

Who would have thought that a “slow” kid from Kansas State would ever tear up the NFL? Well, that’s exactly what Nelson has done since entering the league. Green Bay’s offense missed him dearly when he was lost for the season last year with a torn ACL, but he came back this season and showed off why he is one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers.

This year he led the NFL in receiving TDs with 14 and had nearly 100 receptions, but what makes Nelson the most dangerous is his chemistry with Rodgers. The two seem to be telepathically connected which makes their improvising, back-yard offense work. There is no guarantee Rodgers will have his go-to guy Sunday as Jordy is listed as questionable.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (83.7)

His name may be Ha Ha, but when he picks you off or lays the boom, you won’t be laughing. Clinton-Dix is one of the most dangerous defensive play-makers in the league.

He excels at baiting QBs, which led him to snatch five interceptions this season, and a total of eight picks in his short, three-year career.

Dix also has the ability to make you hurt with his strong tackling, often times breaking up passes. You have to think that he will be lurking around Julio Jones all Sunday.

Mike Daniels (85.3)

Last year when Bleacher Report named their top 3-4 defensive ends, Mike Daniels found himself ranked third. This accolade surprised a ton of people considering Daniels wasn’t the household name of a J.J. Watt or Muhammad Wilkerson, but he certainly was a force in the trenches.

This year, he might have been even better. He recorded four sacks and 33 tackles as he truly dominated every offensive line he faced. In a matchup against Atlanta earlier in the season, he recorded a sack. Expect similar production from him again this Sunday.

 

The Verdict

I expect this game to be one of the most fun post-season games of this year as both offenses will put on a show against relatively weak secondaries. With that said, I expect the team with the most rushing yards to emerge victorious.

The Falcons should have distinct home field advantage as the fans will want to send the Georgia Dome out with a bang before the move to the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium next season. That is the perfect formula to rise up this Sunday.

Final: Atlanta defeats Green Bay 45-31

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