In the aftermath of Atlanta's compelling 20-17 victory over Green Bay on Sunday, I tried to take a bigger picture look at both of the NFC's best teams and which one is most equipped to make a deep playoff run. Although I picked the Packers to reach the Super Bowl, the fact that the Falcons can run the football -- they can pound it -- makes them the more dangerous team heading to this critical final stretch.
Arizona and Indianapolis proved over the past two seasons that a solid running game isn't a needed qualifier to reach the Super Bowl. They were dome teams, though, where a fast track and an adequate short passing game helped offset the inability to grind out tough yards and milk the clock by running.
The Packers play in some of the worst elements there are and four of their remaining games are outdoors. That's nothing new to Green Bay, and the Patriots have proven a team can win in the cold and wind and snow with running the ball just enough. Green Bay could have just enough of a running game -- it ranks 23rd in the NFL with a 98.4-yard average, however, it can't rely on quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12 carries for 51 yards and one TD vs. Atlanta) to be their leading rusher too often.
Brandon Jackson, who has surpassed the 100-yard mark just once this season, has been a decent fill in for Ryan Grant, but over the past three games, he's totaled 96 yards and is averaging less than 3 yards per carry. John Kuhn is his backup and he's a pounder who has shown the ability to close out games with some tough totes. But it's no secret what's going to happen when he's on the field.
Green Bay's running game might be enough to get it to the postseason, but the lack of a potential playmaker in the backfield makes them easier to plan for, and, if you can control the Packers' possessions like Atlanta did by staging long offensive drives, easier to defend.
"That's a pass-first offense, probably one of the few in this league," Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said. "Indianapolis might be another one. They run off their pass. We knew if we completely shut them down on first and second down, the percentage of us shutting them down on third down is much higher. We did what we had to do."
Atlanta didn't know what other teams don't know. The Packers' lack of a running game is no secret. With Rodgers and a solid defense, Green Bay should still make the playoffs. Had Rodgers not fumbled in the end zone against Atlanta, the result could have been different and the ground attack, or lack thereof, would have been kept under the rug.
That was one game, which is why I'm not dismissing the Packers or crowning the Falcons (I do like them because they've put together five straight wins, four against potential playoff teams). Green Bay is still a team to be reckoned with and I wouldn't be shocked if the Falcons and Packers meet again in the playoffs.
I just don't know if the result would be much different, regardless of where the game is played.
Atlanta seems better built for a playoff run. The defense is improving, Matt Ryan is so smooth in the clutch and Michael Turner and Jason Snelling make up a wrecking-ball tandem that seriously tests defenders' manhood. The Falcons' ability to run the ball is what separates them from the Packers. It's their ability to protect the ball and not have major flaws in any element of the game that makes them different than the Giants, a potential playoff team built similarly.
Atlanta can impose its will running the ball. The overlooked part is that Turner and Snelling aren't the meat of the muscle.
Fullback Ovie Mughelli is having a Pro Bowl-type year blocking and making opportune catches when he gets a rare opportunity. He's a strong, technical blocker as well as a thumper. Falcons running back coach Gerald Brown told me that Mughelli is dominating people and he's the unspoken cog that's making the offense go.
For example, on Turner's 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down to put Atlanta up 17-10 over the Packers, he followed Mughelli, who took yet another turn locking up Packers linebacker Frank Zombo. When the play was called, Mughelli said he knew he had to make the key isolation block and when he saw it was Zombo, he knew he'd make it.
"As a fullback, I thrive on knowing the running back is running behind me on a play like that," Mughelli said. "Sometimes the running back makes a play behind you and it's on him, you really don't have anything to do with it. When you know that what you do relates to the success of the play, you get like ... an out-of-body experience. When that play was called, I know I had to come low, come hard and run right through the guy."
Mughelli told me that he'd worked Zombo pretty good from the early part of the game. In fact, Mughelli said if the teams meet again, he's pretty certain that Zombo and the rest of the Packers might not want to engage in a prolonged rumble with the Falcons.
"We knew within the first couple plays that we can break this defense," Mughelli said. "We knew we were better than these guys, that they're not holding up and we can run the ball on this defense. The whole time we were campaigning for that."
The Johnson-Finnegan affair
I was somewhat surprised that Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson drew equal $25,000 fines for their fight in Houston's victory over the Titans. Think about this: Former Saints wide receiver Joe Horn was fined $30,000 after stashing a phone under the padding of a goal post and using it as a prop for a TD celebration.
Former Falcons coach Jim Mora was fined $25K for using a cell phone on the sideline to find out playoff scenarios if his team tied a game against Tampa Bay.
Repeat rules violator Chad Ochocinco of the Cincinnati Bengals was fined $30,000 for sporting a poncho and sombrero after scoring a touchdown against Detroit in 2009.
There already is a lot of mixed reaction to the punishment that came without explanation from the NFL. This ruling, however, followed the $25,000 fine schedule for a repeat fighting violation. So now we all pretty much know.
I thought Finnegan would be dealt firmer punishment because of his rep and previous fines this season. However, even though he was the instigator, Finnegan wasn't the first one to de-cap the adversary or throw the haymakers. Johnson was on both counts. His solid rep, as opposed to Finnegan's, probably worked in his favor because his actions were more flagrant.
The fact that Finnegan got hit with two punches to the face might have balanced out the scales -- and made a ton of people who follow and play in the NFL quite happy. All things being equal, the punishment is probably on the mark -- and both teams get to keep both players on the field.
Eagles defensive end Trent Cole, who I can't mention without saying is one of the most underrated players in the league, told me that he was hoping Johnson got suspended for Thursday's game in Philadelphia because he's so good. Like Johnson and Finnegan, Cole has to deal with the cards on the table.
The true lesson to all of this: Don't break out a cell phone or sombrero on the field if you want to save a few bucks.
Making chicken salad out of ...
The NFC West is the ugliest division in the league but over the past few days, it's also become one of the most intriguing.
The Rams and Seahawks are tied for the lead at 5-6 and the 49ers, seemingly on cue to fulfill owner Jed York's prediction that they will make the playoffs, are just a game back at 4-7. The Cardinals have returned to non-relevant status and I'm sure the clock is ticking for Larry Fitzgerald's request to be moved.
Of all the teams in the hunt, St. Louis is the team to watch. Though the 49ers have won three of four, the Rams look better in just about every facet than all of the other teams struggling to figure things out. The breakthrough of winning on the road at Denver on Sunday also could prove major. St. Louis hadn't won on the road all season and the game with the Broncos was the first of three straight away from home.
"We have to win on the road or we can't go anywhere," said Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, who, by saying something as cliché' as that, shows you how far the Rams have come. A win anywhere used to be the Holy Grail. "We got a young football team and that was a great experience (beating Denver). We found a way to win. We played a lot better in all three phases and guys rallied and said they have to find a way.
"We finally won a game in November, so we checked that box off. Winning on the road: we checked off that box. I'm just glad we're in the thick of it."
The next game is at Arizona, which is a game the Rams should win. Then they travel to New Orleans, before facing a potential knock-down drag-out game in the Missouri Bowl against current AFC West leader Kansas City. The final two games are against visiting San Francisco and at Seattle, divisional matchups that should keep things interesting through Week 17.
On a different note, Spagnuolo told me how much defensive end Chris Long has emerged since being moved to left defensive end. Long, the No. 2 overall pick in 2008 (ahead of Matt Ryan), was gaining a reputation of being overdrafted since he wasn't producing as projected -- especially for a pass-rushing right end.
Since taking over for Leonard Little on the left side this season, Long has 23 tackles and 6.5 sacks. He had nine career sacks coming into the season.
"What's helped is having (defensive tackle) Fred Robbins right beside him," Spagnuolo said. "He still has a ways to go but he has come leaps and bounds since two years ago."
When it rains ...
Think Broncos coach Josh McDaniels wants a do-over, and a do-over and another do-over? What a train wreck of a weekend for him -- and there are plenty of folks loving every minute of it because he's perceived to have tried to be the Almighty Belichick without earning the right to be the Almighty Anything.
First, he got fined $50,000 for not reporting to the team/NFL that his video coordinator Steve Scarnecchia illegally recorded a walk-through of the 49ers in London before San Francisco walked through Denver to victory. He worked together with Scarnecchia from 2001-04 in New England, and his link to the man who, as a member of the Jets in 2007, was later involved in outing the Patriots during the infamous video-tape scandal, heaped negative suspicion on McDaniels. The episode has embarrassed owner Pat Bowlen.
Making matters worse, Denver lost at home to St. Louis, dropping the Broncos to 3-8, last in the AFC West. Team CEO Joe Ellis wouldn't comment on McDaniels' long-term future in a conference call Saturday, saying the team had (then) six games remaining and hopefully they'd get back to winning.
Monday, Bowlen told Thomas George of Fanhouse.com that McDaniels is going to be back for next season. Hours later, in what was a damning change of course, Bowlen, in a statement, backed off his previous long-term endorsement. Ouch.
Let's pile on some more. Quarterback Jay Cutler, who McDaniels traded away on arrival, threw four touchdowns to lead the Bears to a victory over the Eagles to put them in sole possession of first place in the NFC North. Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis, who was traded, along with a sixth-round draft pick in 2011 and a conditional selection in 2012, for quarterback Brady Quinn, once again topped 100 yards -- 26 carries, 131 yards (six receptions, 63 yards) -- and he scored three TDs. And Cleveland defeated Carolina to improve to 4-7 and amass one more victory than the Broncos.
Even though Brandon Marshall, another player McDaniels traded away, didn't play because of a hamstring injury, his Dolphins defeated Denver's AFC West arch-rival Oakland and the Broncos couldn't capitalize. With things turning as badly as they are on McDaniels, this won't be the last time these decisions will be thrown in his face. If Denver keeps losing, he won't be coaching there after this season, either.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.