The Falcons are 8-2 and own the best record in the National Football Conference. They are atop their division with two head-to-head tiebreakers (at least currently) against their closest competitors, the Saints and Bucs. They roundly are considered to have a much easier schedule than many teams with their final remaining games, but this gigantic game against the red hot Green Bay Packers will set the tone for the drive to the playoffs and possibility of earning Dome-field advantage and a first round bye. The 8-2 record is extremely impressive, but the fact that 5 teams are only one game behind them at 7-3 (Bucs, Saints, Eagles, Packers, and Bears), make the lead very tenuous with a road game to Tampa Bay and home game against the resurgent Saints left on the docket. The Packers have had some of their own enormous wins (@ Jets and @ Philadelphia), but they’ve also had their share of perplexing losses (Bears, Redskins, and Dolphins) and razor thin wins (2 points over Lions and 4 points over Vikings – 1st game).
All that being said though, the Packers are on a hot streak where they’ve beaten their last 3 opponents (Jets, Cowboys, & Vikings) by a combined score of 85-10. Regardless of who they’ve played, that’s impressive. When asked which defense would be the toughest when the schedule came out, many fans would have likely said the Steelers or Ravens. The truth may be that the Packers are the toughest. They are aggressive and two of the best defensive players at their respective positions in Charles Woodson at cornerback and Clay Matthews Jr. at outside linebacker. They are very similar to the Saints of last year, extremely opportunistic and aggressive defense coupled with a high-octane, attacking offense. Lucky for FOX, this one sets up as one of the best games of the year. Lucky for Falcons fans, this one’s in the confines of the Georgia Dome. Should be a ton of fun. Six searing questions as the colossal game nears…….
After receiving some criticism early in the year, the Falcons offense has proven it can do whatever it takes to win and is almost clicking on all cylinders. They have shown they can score when they rely heavily on the run game and pound the defense into submission, while dominating the clock and time of possession. But they’ve also shown they can win through the air if they need to rely on Ryan’s arm and slinging the ball around the field. Their preference is obviously to be a run-first, clock chewing offensive football team as dictated and desired by Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey and Head Coach Mike Smith. In recent weeks, they’ve had no problem giving the keys to the offense to Matt Ryan and let him decide which is best. The Packers rank 11th best in the NFL in passing defense, 18th in rush defense, but rank 4th in the NFL in sacks. Since the Packers are well-known for their offense, particularly their “explosive” passing game (even though they only rank 11th, which is just 2 spots ahead of Atlanta), the Falcons offensive brass will likely want to chew up the clock and pound the Packers on the ground, thus equalizing their good pass rush and keeping Aaron Rodgers on the sideline. If their first option doesn’t work, they’ve shown they can win if they get into a shootout, but that obviously won’t be there preference.
The former USC linebacker has turned into one of the best defensive players in the game in only two years in the game. He already possesses 11.5 sacks, 3 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, and 1 touchdown on the year. The Falcons had the chance to draft Matthews in 2009 when they possessed the 24th overall pick. Many fans clamored for them to take Matthews (ahem), but they decided to go with Peria Jerry and the Packers quickly snagged him only two picks later at #26. Granted, the 3-4 aggressive scheme certainly suits his style much more, but some may wonder what may have been as Matthews is already on his way to his second straight Pro Bowl in only his second year. Even though it doesn’t matter how or when you get 11.5 sacks, the total is a touch skewed to the fact that 6 of his 11.5 sacks came in the first two weeks. Since then he’s averaging roughly 1 sack per game. The Packers defensive line has a ton of sacks as well with DE Cullen Jenkins owning 4 and DT BJ Raji owning 2. The Falcons offensive line have come up big in recent weeks and seems to have possibly turned the corner, but their biggest challenge lies ahead with Clay Matthews leading the aggressive Packers defense on Sunday. Obviously, a strong running game and a quick passing game can help slow down Matthews, but if those don’t work well than Matt Ryan can count on seeing a lot of #52.
You wouldn’t know that the Falcons have the best record in the NFC and are tied with the best record in the NFL by listening to pretty much all the national media outlets and networks. Who knows the reason why the Falcons aren’t getting more respect and the possibilities make for a long list: the Falcons have had a weaker schedule, the Falcons can only win at home, the Falcons aren’t a “glamorous” team, the Falcons have gotten lucky too much, the Falcons haven’t beaten many quality opponents, the Falcons are too “blue-collar” to sell storylines, or there’s a northeast bias against Atlanta. It’s as if these networks (ESPN, NFL.com, NFL Network) have a flavor of the week of any team OTHER than the Falcons. First it was the Saints, then the Giants, and now it’s the Eagles and Packers. Some, including Chris Collinsworth of Sunday Night Football, even went out of his way to mention how good the Saints and Bucs were at 7-3 (who the Falcons have both beaten) instead of the 8-2 Falcons. Take your pick of “national” commentators from Chris Collinsworth and Peter King to Jamie Dukes and Rod Woodson, they’ll all might say the Falcons are OK, but never mention them as one of the best in the NFC.
It sure is nice to fly under the radar and sneak up on people, especially after actually owning the best record in the conference, as Roddy White mentioned after the Ravens game. But deep down there has to be some serious motivation going on in the locker room after actually having the best record in the NFC, but being discussed as a middle-of-the-road team and sometimes even the 3rd best in your division. Who knows what the deal with the national talking heads is and who cares. The bottom line is to keep winning football games. Beating the Ravens was supposed to bring some respect, but it hasn’t. The Falcons have another huge opportunity to make a statement in the NFC against the “new best team in the NFC” Packers. Granted, exterior motivation such as lack of respect in the media won’t last for 60 minutes and help win a football game, but you can bet that the Falcons have heard how “weak” they are a time or two.
The Falcons have drafted several defensive tackles in the past draft to bolster their interior defensive line with the 1st round selection of Peria Jerry in 2009 and the 3rd round selection of Corey Peters in 2010. Mix those guys with Jonathan Babineaux (who was robbed of a Pro Bowl selection last year), the very underrated Vance Walker, Jamaal Anderson’s versatility and you have a deep DT position that has been able to create good pressure on the QB and backfield. The defensive end position as a whole and the defensive scheme, though, have left a lot to be desired. John Abraham is the heart and soul of the defensive line and obviously provides a boost to the pass rush, but the Falcons are buried deep on the chart in terms of sacks (24th in NFL) with 18. Compare that to the visiting Green Bay Packers with 29 and you get the feeling that the Falcons pass rush isn’t getting it done. Truly, a good defense isn’t designated only by sacks because the Falcons are tied for 2nd in the NFL in interceptions. The two can go hand-in-hand though if you look at the Eagles (26 sacks – 19 ints), Packers (29 sacks – 15 ints), or Titans (30 sacks – 15 ints).
Abraham owns 8 of the 18 sacks and no other player holds more than 2 (Lofton, Babineaux) and the rest are scattered around the roster at 1 (Jerry, Anderson, Peterson, Williams, Biermann, Weatherspoon). The other defensive end spot has produced a paltry 1 sack with Biermann snagging only 1. Outside of Abraham, the Falcons haven’t had consistent pressure from another DE since Patrick Kerney left town. Maybe its too simple to just blame the defensive ends. Perhaps Brian Van Gorder and Mike Smith deserve a lion share of the blame with their scheme. After hearing of all the youth and speed upgrade, this defense doesn’t seem much more aggressive than last years. The defense rarely blitzes and when they do, they can’t even get there many times. The offense and defense have definitely swapped roles since the beginning of the season, where the defense once was the savior and the offense was the goat. They seemingly have switched recently. The defense does get credit for doing enough to win games, but the defensive coaches don’t seem to maximizing their talent. Who knows the definitive reason, but the defense will have to ramp up their pressure to beat Aaron Rodgers and go far in the playoffs.
Seems like this has been a constant theme each and every week, especially lately. There have been a ton of games where the Falcons needed to rise up and Defend the Dome against tough and highly-rated opponents. Whether it be the “best team in NFC” Bucs, the perennial contender Ravens, or now the “red hot” Packers. The Falcons own the only unbeaten streak at homein the NFC and we know the other statistics pretty well: 18-3 at home under Mike Smith (2 games without Ryan and Turner), and 18-1 at home with Matt Ryan as the starter. An unbelievable mark that gives fans the confidence that any game is never out of reach or any opponent is too tough or “red hot” to be beat by the Falcons in the Home Sweet Georgia Dome. Coach Mike Smith has already made a plea for the fans to get there early and get loud. It was easy for nationally televised primetime Thursday Night Game, and it should be just as easy for fans on this one. An NFL season is a marathon and the Falcons have had a fantastic year to date, but how this season ends may be determined by this game. If the Green Bay Packers are the “Best Team in the NFC” according to the talking head elite, than you have to beat the best to be the best. Simply put, a COLOSSAL GAME AWAITS!
Can Roddy White continue his dominance this year against one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Charles Woodson?….Can Sean Weatherspoon get back up to speed in this game and relay a needed impact?….Will this be the game where we see some plays made by Thomas DeCoud or Christopher Owens?….Will Aaron Rodgers pick on Brent Grimes or Dunta Robinson?….Will this be the week that Harry Douglas reminds of his fantastic rookie year?….Will the Falcons special teams have another gaffe?
-Simple to you: How big is this game?
-Are you afraid of the Big, Bad, Best Packers?
-Can the Falcons defense contain Red Hot Rodgers?
-Does the secondary have it in them to stop this receiving corps?
-Aerial Arsenal, Ground and Pound, or a mix to win this game?
-Can the Falcons win a shootout with the Packers?
-Will the O-Line continue their streak and slow down Packers attacks?
-Did Falcons make a mistake not drafting Clay Matthews in 2009?
-Do you think lack of national respect is a motivation to players, team?
-Who’s best in NFC: Eagles, Packers, Saints, Bucs, Bears….Lions (of course not Falcons)?
-What’s the deal with the lack of pass rush?
-Who’s most to blame: DE’s, LB’s, or Van Gorder/Smith?
-Do Falcons need to draft DE in 1st round in 2011?
-Can Falcons keep their “Home Sweet Dome” streak alive?
-Will fans be as loud and imposing as Ravens game?
-Also, take a try at “Bonus Questions”