3 things to watch Monday vs. Falcons
No letting up
The threat of a letdown is always present in the NFL, but the Packers are 121/2-point favorites for a reason. They're the NFL's hottest team equipped with the potential league MVP and playing the worst-ranked defense. If that isn't enough, the Packers are unbeaten at home this season and have won 16 consecutive games at Lambeau Field in games that Aaron Rodgers has thrown at least 10 passes. For all their flaws, the Falcons (5-7) remain in the playoff chase thanks to the ineptitude of the NFC South. Atlanta still has a top-10 offense behind Matt Ryan. The problem has been keeping him upright behind a leaky offensive line. Time appears to have passed Steven Jackson by at age 31, but he still doesn't cough up the football. If Roddy White is able to play through his ankle injury, it would seem the Falcons have the necessary weapons to keep pace with the Packers' perimeter weapons assuming their defense can get a stop or two along the way. Atlanta struggles to get pressure on the quarterback, particularly in a four-man rush. The Falcons' 14 sacks are the second fewest in the league, behind only Oakland (13). The Packers have been lights-out at home in the first half. Over their last five games, they've outscored opponents 79-0 in the first quarter and 151-23 in the first half. "It will be Monday night — I think that will help make sure guys are focused," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "We know what we have in front of us, we have a four-game stretch here. Detroit is right behind us. We can't let up at all and we need to make sure we take care of business."
Who's on Julio?
It's debatable whether Julio Jones was worth all the draft picks the Falcons gave up to draft him sixth overall in 2011, but he's certainly blossomed into an elite receiver. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound receiver has returned to form after a fractured foot limited him to five games in 2013. Entering the weekend, he was third in the NFL with 1,169 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 82 receptions. He's coming off his best performance of the season in last week's 29-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals when he caught 10 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, winning his battle with Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson. The Packers did a decent job against Jones during their only encounter with him in 2011. A rookie at the time, Jones finished with one catch for 16 yards. Sam Shields was the cornerback assigned to him most, but he's questionable because of a concussion he suffered against the Patriots. If he can't go, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has said he has full confidence in veteran Tramon Williams or reserves Davon House and Casey Hayward to be able to keep stride with Jones if called upon. All three have taken snaps across from the likes of Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. "He's playing at a high level right now," said Whitt of his fellow Alabamian. "I've known about Julio ever since he was in high school. He was dominant then, and he's dominant now."
Good situational football will be key to both sides. Although its defense has been a sieve, Atlanta ranks third in the NFL in turnovers with 14 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. Those numbers likely do the Falcons little good against the Packers and Rodgers, who hasn't thrown a pick at Lambeau Field this year. They'll also need to take a page out of the Patriots' book and crack down in the red zone, where the Packers failed to convert four drives inside the New England 20-yard line into touchdowns last week. That begins with keeping tabs on top-flight receivers Nelson and Randall Cobb. The Falcons don't have the secondary firepower of the Patriots with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, but Desmond Trufant has been one of few bright spots in Mike Nolan's defense. He'll likely get the call on Nelson, who seems bound for his first Pro Bowl. Even then, Atlanta's defensive front will need to find an answer for Eddie Lacy in the backfield. That's the cat-and-mouse game defenses must play. Where the Falcons will be looking to limit Rodgers' weapons, the Packers' special teams will aim to do the same with Devin Hester, who leads the NFL in punt-return average (15.4). It's their 17th encounter with Hester, who's returned two punts for touchdowns against Green Bay. "He's always been a special player," cornerback Jarrett Bush said. "It's our job to go in there and kind of contain him, and do our best. We have a great game plan coming in and look forward to the challenge of going against him and competing again."