Breaking down the NFC divisional battle, Packers at Falcons, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, FOX
1. This is Matt Ryan's close up: In November, when I was reporting a story on the Saints' Drew Brees as Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, I got into a conversation with Saints' head coach Sean Payton about the truly elite quarterbacks in the league. The top tier is pretty well-established: Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers, Rivers. I asked Payton for a couple names on who would be next in the line to join the top guys (and that's not to say that those top guys are all equal -- they're not). The first name Payton mentioned? Matt Ryan. And that pretty much summarizes Ryan's status in the quarterback club: He's the superstar-in-waiting, a 25-year-old, three-year veteran who does -- and says -- pretty much all the right things.
Now comes the next step. He's the franchise quarterback for the No. 1 seed in the NFC, leading his team into a home game after a bye week. This is his stage. It is no easy matchup for the Falcons, but if Ryan is to continue the process of ascending into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks, this is the type of game he must win.
Ryan was a rookie sensation two years ago, leading the Falcons into the playoffs, where they lost 30-24 at Arizona, which nearly won the Super Bowl. A year ago the Birds were 9-7 and this year led the NFC seeding race from wire-to-wire. Ryan was very good in a 20-17 Week 12 win over Green Bay in the comfy Georgia Dome, but in the ensuing four weeks Ryan completed only 54 percent of his passes in road wins at Tampa Bay, Carolina and Seattle and a home loss to the Saints. During that stretch he averaged only 5.4 yards per attempt, which, if extrapolated over an entire season, would rank him nearly last in the league.
They call Ryan ''Matty Ice'' for his cool under pressure. He will not have faced more pressure than on Saturday night and he will probably have to challenge the deep third of the field more than he has in recent weeks. If he wins the game, his legend grows. If the Falcons lose, Ryan shoulders his first little piece of big-game failure, and that's the kind of tag that will follow him until he wins one. Best to do it early.
2. The matchup between Packers' corners Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson and Falcons' wideout Roddy White. White caught 115 balls in the regular season, most in the NFL and 27 more than he had caught in any of his previous five years in the league. At 6-foot, 212 pounds, White is the prototypical physical wideout. He gets off jams, he catches balls in the middle of the field and absorbs a pounding from safeties and linebackers. He is by far Ryan's most reliable option (tight end Tony Gonzalez was second on the team with 70 catches; the next wideout after White was Michael Jenkins with 41 catches).
But there are two games to examine. First, in the Week 12 win, the Packers held White to a relatively benign five catches for 49 yards. Only twice all season did he catch fewer balls (on two other occasions he caught five) and only once did he accumulate fewer yards. Second, while White caught 115 balls in the regular season, the only other NFL player with more than 94 catches was the Colts' Reggie Wayne. On wild-card weekend, Wayne was stranded on Revis Island and disappeared in the Colts' loss to the Jets. Williams and Woodson are not Revis, but they're close. White cannot disappear.
3. Does Green Bay's James Starks run over the Falcons the way he ran over the Eagles? The Packers lost Ryan Grant to an injury in the first week of the season and subsequently finished 24th in the NFL with an average of just over 100 yards per game and less than four yards per carry. Rodgers is a gifted and creative quarterback, but with no running game he was too often left to rescue a one-dimensional Green Bay offense. That cannot happen in the Georgia Dome, where it's imperative the Packers play the game close to prevent crowd-fueled momentum.
Enter Starks. Activated in Week 13 (coincidentally one week after the loss to the Falcons), Starks ran for a punishing 123 yards on 23 carries in the 21-16 wild-card win over the Eagles. His performance underscores the resilience of the present-day Packers. They have 15 players on injured reserve and Starks was a sixth-round draft pick from Buffalo who didn't play his senior year in college because of a severe shoulder injury. He is also a downhill tailback who Packers' coach Mike McCarthy likes because "he falls forward.''
Was a Starks a one-week wonder? The Falcons were a respectable 10th in the league against the run and held the Packers to just 77 yards on the ground in Week 12, forcing Rodgers to throw for 344. Those numbers will send the Falcons into the NFC Championship Game.
Before the final two games of the regular season, Falcons' running back Michael Turner had not fumbled in more than 300 carries. Then he lost a crucial red zone fumble against the Saints and lost another fumble against the Panthers. Turner says he's not worried. His teammates say they're not worried. Turner has more than 1,100 carries in his seven-year NFL career and just 11 fumbles. There's no reason to think two fumbles at the end of the season is a trend. Or is there?
It's become trendy to pick the Packers. And there is a lot to like about Rodgers, Woodson and Starks, and a lot of reasons to think the Packers could win three straight road games and play in the Super Bowl. But there's another issue: The Pack has been in playoff mode for a month or more. Several have been tough, physical battles. The Falcons won 13 games to get home field in a building where they are very tough. They are rested. I see Ryan playing his best game since November. Falcons 24, Packers 21