When the Green Bay Packers met the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome in week eight, Green Bay’s performance was drastically different from the performances fans have become accustomed to seeing in recent weeks. The loss to Atlanta was the first for the Packers as they skidded through a four-game losing streak. Comments like 'McCarthy has to go' and ‘Aaron Rodgers is on a downward spiral’ began spreading like wildfire.
Then, just like a flick of magic right out of a box-office thriller, Rodgers declared that the Packers would win their next six games and "run the table". So what exactly are the key difference makers that have taken the Packers from a losing record to the NFC title game?
When Atlanta hosted Green Bay midway through the regular season, the Packers were dealing with several big injuries. The inactive list entirely consisted of key playmakers: Randall Cobb, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, James Starks, Clay Matthews, Ty Montgomery, and Jared Cook.
For a secondary that was already struggling after the loss of CB Sam Shields, being without Randall and Rollins was damaging. The Packers tasked second-year CB LaDarius Gunter with matching up against Julio Jones in the game against Atlanta. Jones was targeted just five times and held to a season-low three catches for 29 yards, although he was dealing with ongoing toe and ankle injuries.
Another big injury zone to note was that of James Starks and Ty Montgomery. The Packers’ run game was already hurting without Eddie Lacy who was placed on IR two weeks prior. Green Bay resorted to using former Chief Knile Davis who had just 3 carries for 4 yards, Don Jackson with 4 carries for 10 yards and Aaron Ripkowski who had 6 carries for 34 yards. In fact, Aaron Rodgers was the leading rusher against Atlanta with 6 carries for 60 yards.
Needless to say, the Packers run game has improved since. Likewise, the Falcons fell in the lower half against the run during the regular season, with opposing teams going for just under an average of 105 yards per game. The Packers could feature a stronger running game with Montgomery this time around.
An important side injury to note is that of Falcons’ DL Adrian Clayborn, one of the team’s leading pass rushers, who will not play this week.
Packers’ Offensive Development
When the two teams last met Rodgers threw for 246 yards, four TDs and managed a 125.5 QB rating. Those TDs went to Nelson, Geronimo Allison (who had been recently promoted from the practice squad), Trevor Davis, and Jeff Janis.
Of course being without Jordy Nelson against Atlanta this week is a big loss but Rodgers has already proved that he can turn almost any receiving target into a playmaker. If there’s one thing the Packers do well it’s player development and that has become increasingly evident as the season continues.
Green Bay’s makeshift receiving corps has now had more than half a season to get comfortable in Rodgers’ offense. Should he continue on his historic display of quarterbacking dominance, a shootout between Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan will likely end advantageous for Green Bay.
In the first half of the season, the Packers struggled with keeping control of the ball. Green Bay ended the regular season with a plus 8-turnover differential, which looks promising at face value. However, in the last six games of the regular season, the Packers had 15 takeaways and just one turnover, a dramatic shift from the minus-six turnover differential in the first 10 games.
When asked about the biggest contributor to the regular season six-game winning streak outside of Aaron Rodgers, McCarthy pinpointed turnovers as the difference. Currently, the Packers sit at plus two in the post-season with two takeaways against the Giants and one against the Cowboys. Continuing to maintain control of the ball will be crucial in this offensive matchup.
The meeting on Sunday will come down to the arms of two dominant quarterbacks. Matt Ryan’s control of the game this season will likely earn him the MVP nod but Aaron Rodgers’ storybook season is something no one could have predicted nine weeks ago. The two teams struggle on defense, but the offenses are the best in the business. Despite Atlanta having the home turf advantage, Aaron Rodgers is nearly unstoppable in the last eight weeks.
The Packers are healthier on both sides of the ball, have found their offensive rhythm and have drastically improved on the turnover front. The team Atlanta met eight weeks ago has done a complete 180 from the team they will see this coming weekend. This is a game that could absolutely go either way, but the high-scoring shootout will likely come down to whoever has the last possession.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Please give Erin Underwood a warm welcome to the APC writing staff!)