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NFC Championship Q&A: On Matt Ryan, Julio Jones’ injury, & defending the Packers’ running backs

As the Packers and Falcons finish their preparations for their game on Sunday, we do the same thanks to some help from our brethren covering Atlanta.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It’s almost time for the NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons, and most of our coverage this week has been focused on Green Bay. However, a line often attributed to Sun Tzu states “if you know thy enemy and you know thyself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

With that in mind, it’s time to get to know the Falcons a bit better, even though the two teams played earlier this season. This week, APC sat down with Dave Choate, the head man over at SB Nation’s Atlanta Falcons blog, The Falcoholic. Dave was kind enough to break down some of the Falcons’ strengths and weaknesses for us, in addition to injury issues that have affected both sides of the football.

APC: The Falcons lost Adrian Clayborn recently - how big a factor was he for Atlanta's pass rush, and do you think they'll be able to get to Rodgers without him?

This is a good question. Clayborn is arguably the team's third-best pass rusher, a productive player who can line up inside and outside, and losing him does hurt this defense. Without him, there will be more pressure on the rest of the defense to perform, and particularly Vic Beasley in a genuinely difficult matchup.

The Falcons will hope they get another nice game out of the likes of Jonathan Babineaux (who has been with Atlanta since 2005), long-haired defensive end Brooks Reed, and promising young defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. I imagine they'll be able to get home, but they're going to need to blitz early and often to make that work.

APC: Atlanta's defense appears to struggle mightily against running backs, both on the ground and in the passing game. Is that a fair assessment, and if so, what factors play into the struggles that they have had in that area?

They do, by and large, struggle against running backs. They've been able to mitigate that weakness by getting up by double digit scores and forcing teams to pass against them, but that's not a solution that's likely to work against the Packers.

The Falcons are vulnerable in the middle of the field, essentially, until you get to the secondary where Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen roam, ready to deliver big hits. Their defensive tackles are not great outside of Jarrett, and their linebackers are young and talented but don't always hold up well against a strong rushing attack. If you have a back who can work catching the ball out of the backfield or in the middle of the field, so much the better. Ty Montgomery seems to me like the kind of back Atlanta might struggle to deal with.

APC: Matt Ryan always struck me as a very good quarterback, but not a great one. How has he elevated his game this season to become one of the elite signal-callers in the league (and the likely MVP)?

I think the talent has always been there with Ryan, but he thrives when you play to his strengths. The Falcons went about getting him upgrades at basically every position (including running back, where they taught Tevin Coleman to run routes), got him to change his approach to the game and not over-analyze his throws, and just got him more comfortable in Kyle Shanahan's scheme. The result is that Ryan has never been better, both because of his own improvements and the improvements to the rest of the roster.

The key to all of this in so many ways is Alex Mack, who has been a massive upgrade at center and ensures the correct protections are called. Ryan has gotten sacked plenty, but he rarely looks uncomfortable in the pocket.

APC: Are the injuries that have kept Julio Jones out of practice this week and limited Taylor Gabriel going to be a factor at all on Sunday, or should we expect both players to be playing up to their normal capabilities?

I expect Gabriel to be more or less good to go. Obviously, anything that limits his speed is a significant concern, but I don't see any major reasons to worry about his status. He'll get 5 or so looks and make the most of the, as he so often does.

It's a different story with Julio. He didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday, practiced on a limited basis Friday, and is dealing with lingering injury issues. It would not surprise me in the slightest if Julio was less than 100% against you guys, and while his 75% is better than most receivers at full health, it's not optimal in such a huge game.

APC: Picks! Which way are you going on this game, and will the two teams hit the ridiculous 61 points that Vegas set as the over/under?

I'm going to surprise you and say I expect the Packers to win a very close game, 34-31, which means they'll blow right by that 61. I think if this game is as close as I anticipate and Aaron Rodgers can work his magic, the Falcons may very well lose. It's one they can win if all goes well and they can put the brakes on the Green Bay offense, but I'm just not certain.

Thanks to Dave for his great insights, and we at APC are certainly that his prediction comes true!