Here’s the question for the NFC championship game from the Green Bay Packers’ perspective:
Can coordinator Dom Capers’ undermanned defense get a stop or two against the explosive Atlanta Falcons?
That’s very well what this game could come down to. The Falcons, after all, have the NFL’s top-scoring offense and likely MVP, Matt Ryan. And the Packers counter with the league’s best player over the last two months, Aaron Rodgers, racking up points for them.
Is there any reason to think this won’t be an epic scoring battle? Just look at Las Vegas’ over-under, which on Wednesday was up to 61½ points, highest ever for an NFL playoff game, according to Pro Football Reference. And 61½ actually seems a little light to me.
“It’s going to be like fastbreak basketball,” said an assistant coach in the league whose team recently played the Falcons.
So if the yards and points keep piling up possession after possession Sunday in the Georgia Dome, this game could come down to somebody making just one or two stops, or forcing a couple of field goals instead of giving up touchdowns. That could be the difference between going to Houston for the Super Bowl and going home for a long offseason.
For what it’s worth, Capers’ defense did just enough last week at Dallas in the Packers’ 34-31 win in the divisional round of the playoffs. But this week’s assignment is even tougher. Though Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is a talented and preternaturally poised rookie, he still is a rookie. In Ryan, the Packers will be facing a fully formed player at the game's most important position, and with plenty of talent around him.
And Ryan has to be looking at the Packers as ripe pickings. For starters, he put up 33 points and slashed through the Packers' secondary to the game-winning touchdown in the final four minutes when these teams met in late October.
He’s a pure passer who will have the game’s best receiver, Julio Jones, on his side, even if Jones is slowed by a foot injury. And he’ll be looking across at a group of cornerbacks (Damarious Randall, LaDariuis Gunter, Micah Hyde and perhaps Quinten Rollins) who have been under siege since Sam Shields’ season ended in Week 1 because of a concussion.
And then there’s safety Morgan Burnett’s quad injury from last week at Dallas. Burnett didn’t practice Wednesday, and at least for now his status for Sunday is in doubt. If he can’t play, that might be one loss more than the Packers’ defense can overcome.
Without him, the strength of the Packers' secondary, their safeties, would be gutted. In Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Capers has two smart and athletic players who can disguise coverages and mask some of the team's shortcomings at cornerback. Losing either would be a terrible blow.
Even with Burnett, the Packers will be scraping to somehow, some way get off the field on a couple of third downs against a guy who's having one of the better seasons ever by an NFL quarterback. Ryan’s 117.1 rating is the fifth-highest for a season in league history. On third downs, his rating is 112.3. And he’s also coming off a divisional-round game in which he put up a 125.7 rating and 36 points against the Seattle Seahawks. As hot as Rodgers is, Ryan is not far behind.
“He’s in a really good place right now,” said a defensive assistant for another team that recently played the Falcons. “Incredibly accurate and throws a great deep ball. He can drop it down the chimney.”
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About the only thing Ryan doesn’t have is great mobility. Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger, two of the four remaining quarterbacks in the playoffs, are maybe the league’s best at making plays outside the pocket. Ryan isn’t as athletic as they are, so he plays more by the book.
“In the past, he (was) not an off-schedule guy,” said one of the aforementioned assistants. “He doesn’t have that elite ability like Aaron and like Ben. He’s better (moving around than in the past), but he’s not like those guys. So the big thing is, get him off the spot and get him on the move and he’ll throw you some.”
Ryan also is protected by a run game that ranked No. 5 in the league and features two good backs, Devonta Freeman (1,079 yards rushing, 4.8-yard average) and Tevin Coleman (520 yards, 4.4 average). This isn’t like facing Ezekiel Elliott last week, but it’s still a run game Capers will have to honor. And Ryan makes things tougher because of his nine years of experience reading NFL defenses.
“A lot of their pass and run game is ‘Check with me,’” one of the assistants said. “He sees two high safeties, ‘I’m gonna run it.’ He sees one high, ‘I’m gonna throw it.’”
So if the Falcons are running the ball well, then Ryan is in favorable downs and distances. A Packers win on first down, on the other hand, might help get him into an occasional third-and-long. Then Capers can keep his safeties deep and play two-man coverage — that is, man-to-man, with two safeties helping over the top, not just one.
“Two man is helpful to (cornerbacks) that are struggling,” said one of the assistants. “Because a lot of times they can handle the underneath stuff. It’s just when you throw in that they have to take care of the (go) route or the routes that are going deep, that’s what gives them trouble.”
And again, that’s where Burnett’s availability is a big deal. The Packers beat Dallas playing without him for the final three quarters last week, but can they do it against the NFL’s likely MVP in Atlanta, too?
I’m just not sure.