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Falcons look to slow red-hot Packers in playoff rematch


Green Bay Packers (4-0) at Atlanta Falcons (2-2)

1. Aaron Rodgers has overtaken Tom Brady as the game's best quarterback. This is really no surprise. What's surprising is that he didn't do it sooner. Then again, some might say Rodgers fell into a pretty good situation.

Oh yeah.

Someone already said that.

No one knows for sure what Brett Favre really meant by the remarks made during an Atlanta radio appearance earlier this week. In fact, Favre very well could have been saying -- yes, even innocently -- he knew how good Rodgers would be and figured the Packers were championship-ready the previous couple years, too.

Bottom line: Who cares what ol' moldy-doldy No. 4 thinks?

What we care about -- and the Falcons really care about -- is Rodgers is off to an absolutely torrid start to the 2011 season. Remember, he completed 66 percent of his passes for nearly 4,000 yards, 28 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions last season, finishing with a passer rating of 101.2. His numbers got better in four postseason outings (68 percent, 9 TDs, just 2 INTs and a 109.8 rating), despite an uncharacteristically poor effort in the NFC title game.

And those numbers are still getting better in 2011. Actually, they're getting other-worldly.

Rodgers leads the NFL in passing with a 124.6 rating (Brady is second at 111.3), but get this: How 'bout 73 percent completions with 12 touchdowns and just two picks? In Sunday's 49-23 defeat of Denver at Lambeau Field, Rodgers became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 400 yards and four touchdowns and also rush for a pair of TDs.

Through four games, seven Packers have at least seven receptions, four of them have caught at least 11 passes, two average better than 19 yards per reception and three (two wideouts and a tight end) have three touchdowns.

Every bit as impressive as Rodgers and the Packers' deadly, spread-it-around passing precision has been the manner in which they've crushed defenses' wills out of the locker room. Green Bay has outscored opponents 42-20 in the first quarter and 40-10 in the third. The Pack tops the NFL at 37 points per game and broke the 66-year-old franchise record for points through the first four games of the season with 148.

Oh, and Rodgers also leads the NFL in jersey sales, ahead of (ta-da!) Brady, Michael Vick, Troy Polamalu and teammate Clay Matthews.

2. Regarding the above, that's bad news for the Falcons. Green Bay may have the 31st-ranked pass defense in the league, but there's something to be said for those numbers given how far (and how quickly) their opponents fall behind, forcing them to throw often. That said, the Falcons have serious issues defending the pass and the reasons behind their statistics aren't nearly as forgiving.

Neither is their schedule.

How about a quarterback gauntlet of Rodgers, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford over the next three weekends against a defense giving up 275 yards passing (T-24th in the league) and 26 first downs (30th) per game.

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The first man up, Rodgers, came to the Georgia Dome last Jan. 15 for the NFC Divisional round and had one of the great playoff performances in recent memory, completing 31 of 36 throws (81.8 percent), including three touchdowns, and also ran for a fourth score. Wild card Green Bay finished with 442 yards against the NFC South champion that went 13-3 and had a bye as well as home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

"We know we didn't play the way we wanted to [in the postseason loss] and we can learn from that, but we're not going to put any overemphasis on it to the point where it becomes a distraction,'' said Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud, who was a college teammate of Rodgers' at Cal. "Yeah, these next three games are going to be a challenge for us, but we're up to that challenge. We're a talented secondary. Just as importantly, we're a prideful secondary."

The secondary has only half the problem. If that.

Atlanta's pass rush has just five sacks this season and none in the last three games. With no pressure, even a ham-and-egger like Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson (some might consider that a compliment) can have a day when he throws for 317 yards with three touchdowns (two on third down) and nearly pulls off a crazy comeback before falling 30-28 like last Sunday.

"It's a matter of being disciplined and being where you need to be. That's pretty much it," DeCoud said. "A matter of seeing what you need to see and getting in position to make a play. There have been a couple plays where we might have made a wrong read and it cost us. But we have good players, we know that, and it's just a matter of getting things fine-tuned."

The Falcons could benefit from the return of big-bodied defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who occupies space inside but has been out since the opener with a knee injury. When Babineaux last played, Jon Abraham had two sacks in a loss at Chicago.

The player coach Mike Smith (and the Falcons front office) would really like to see break out is defensive end Ray Edwards, who got a five-year, $30 million contract to come to Atlanta and get after the quarterback. Edwards, who had 16.5 sacks the previous two seasons in Minnesota, has nine tackles and no sacks through four games in Atlanta.

3. Protect No. 2. That "Matty Ice" moniker is catchy and all, but as good as Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan often can be, that whole "Ice" thing kind of melts away when his protection does the same.

Ryan, whose 164 pass attempts are third-most in the league behind only Drew Brees (174) and Colt McCoy (172), was sacked 13 times in Atlanta's first three games and took some wicked shots in the pocket from the Bears, Eagles and Buccaneers. So far this season, he's been hit 28 times. Ryan was sacked only 13 times all last season -- but then came the postseason. In that meltdown against the Packers, Ryan went down five times and also threw two interceptions, none bigger than the sideline route cornerback Tramon Williams picked and returned 70 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the first half to give Green Bay a 28-14 lead.

The Falcons surrendered no sacks in the win last week at Seattle, so that's a start. But Clay Matthews and friends will be a defensive challenge more commensurate to Atlanta's first three foes. Ryan would be best served getting tailback Michael Turner (304 yards, 3 TDs), and a 19th-ranked running game averaging just 99.8 yards per game, going to give Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers some pause on his plan of attack.

He made one of the most memorable plays of the postseason last January -- in pass coverage, no less -- but Green Bay's 338-pound defensive tackle B.J. Raji announced himself to opponents well before that by being one of the biggest and best space-eaters in the league. Just 25, Raji, the club's first-round pick out of Boston College in 2009, has picked up where his championship season left off, sort of like the rest of the Packers. He has eight tackles, a sack and a pass deflection manning the middle of a unit ranked No. 2 against the run. Here's some excerpts from a chat with earlier this week.

You guys are 4-0, flying high, the best team in the league, all this love coming your way. How do you keep perspective?

"Easy. We still have goals. I know we won the Super Bowl in 2010, but we have aspirations of winning another one. When your ultimate goal is to win a championship, it's not so easy to get distracted. Obviously, you take them game by game, week by week, but you always have goals in mind."

Aaron Rogers and the offense command so much attention, but you can't win titles and start 4-0 without stopping some people. You guys are No. 2 against the run defensively, but also 28th overall and next-to-last at stopping the pass, so how would you assess the defensive play thus far?

"We have a high standards around here, so anything short of those are not acceptable. We've given up some big plays which obviously is not our standard. We have some things to work on. But as a defense, the ultimate goal is to win, and I think we're playing good enough defense to win so far. ... Teams are trying to attack us differently. We're seeing a lot of max protections, two-man routes. Those things are going to happen when you've had success the previous year. I think we just have to work harder up front to beat two and three blockers, and the guys in the back have to do a better job of covering. That's what it comes down to."

Yeah, but wouldn't it be tough to be better than you guys have been against the run this year?

"Well, we obviously could be better than No. 2 -- we could be No. 1. It's too early in the season to tell right now. It's only Week 5. But there's not any concern about being No. 1, but maybe we can be No. 1 after 16 weeks. We'll see. This week, we're facing a really good running back [Michael Turner] and he's going to be a challenge for us."

What are your concerns with the Falcons offense?

"We have no concerns. We prepare. We respect every team, but there is no reason to be concerned. We're going to play our defense. Every week we try to stop the run. That's not going to be anything new. And we know that they have some good schemes, but we have confidence in our abilities. We'll just see what happens on Sunday."

Every year there are plays made in the postseason that are destined to be remembered and immortalized by NFL Films. You made one last year when you picked off Caleb Hanie in the NFC Championship Game at Chicago and returned it for the clinching touchdown. Nice end zone dance, too. Was that kind of your coming-out party?

"I don't think so. Obviously, anytime you do anything like that on the big stage it gets magnified because of the ramifications; being the one who made the play that helped your team win the championship game. But I think the people that understand this game and the people in this organization and my opponents know how hard I play and how good a season I had last year. So I'm not really worried about any coming-out party. From a national standpoint, people may have started to notice my play with that game, but if you're a football guy you noticed it long before that."

Regarding the above statement about Aaron Rodgers relative to Tom Brady, maybe we shouldn't limit ourselves to present-day achievements. OK, OK, so Rodgers has only been a starting QB since the 2008 season, but the NFL's passer rating system was established in 1973 as a barometer to measure a quarterback's efficiency against those from other eras. Look where Rodgers ranks all-time among quarterbacks with at least 1,500 passing attempts.

And a baker's dozen of other great players, for perspective:


The Packers look like the well-oiled machine that stormed to the Super Bowl XLV title last season. The fact they did it from the NFC's No. 6 seed and had to win three games on the road, including a surprisingly easy romp in Atlanta, shows their resolve and toughness. This will be just another business trip against a Falcons team still searching for its rhythm and stride; and with some glaring weaknesses to address. Right now, the Packers -- and their quarterback -- aren't the team you want to address them against.

Pick: Green Bay 29, Atlanta 21

Last week's pick: New England 35, Oakland 31Last week's result: New England 31, Oakland 19's season record: 4-0