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Preparation, home dome make the difference for Falcons

A breakdown of Saturday's NFC Divisional playoff between the Packers and Falcons:

Aaron Rodgers is playing at a high level, and he now has a playoff victory to his credit. Green Bay relies on him more than Atlanta does Matt Ryan. He had one of his most productive games of the season (344 yards passing, 51 rushing) against the Falcons in a three-point loss earlier this season, including a late touchdown.

Rookie James Starks went off against the Eagles for 123 yards. He's a big back with good speed, who now is on the radar. The Falcons stifled the run game in the first meeting, with Rodgers finishing as the top rusher. Starks didn't play that game. With him combing with Brandon Jackson, the Packers are more dangerous.

Greg Jennings is the star, but Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones, along with the tight ends and running backs, form a multi-pronged corps that could cause Atlanta problems. Jennings was held in check by the Eagles last week, so he could be targeted far more frequently, especially deep.

This group, especially guards Daryn Colledge and Josh Sitton, has to be feeling a little frisky after pounding the Eagles in the run game last week. It will be tougher sledding on the interior this week, and the Packers know that, having failed to get the needed push against Atlanta. Left tackle Chad Clifton is going to have to be at his best against DE John Abraham.

The return of Cullen Jenkins at defensive end last week made life easier for the outside linebackers in passing situations. He collapses the line of scrimmage alongside NT B.J. Raji, and this physical tandem really clogs up running lanes. They also get after the quarterback. Raji plays a lot of snaps for a 3-4 nose tackle.

This strong unit was kept in control the first time they met. Inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk, who have played well, have to be much stouter against the isolation running plays. Matthews is really dialed in, and defensive coordinator Dom Capers is going to be more creative how he uses him this time around.

Safety Nick Collins seems to be coming up with more impact -- literally -- plays. That could be important because Atlanta might try to stress him with high-low crossing routes and pass plays up the seams. Cornerback Charles Woodson's versatility allows for the gaming up front, even on run downs. CB Tramon Williams should be in the Pro Bowl.

Nick Collins

Kicker Mason Crosby hasn't been called on much, but he's been nearly perfect after the bye week, which came after a sluggish start. There are no real breakaway threats in the return game, but the coverage teams are solid. They better be because leaky kickoff coverage late in the first meeting allowed the Falcons to set up the game-winning field goal.

Mike McCarthy has gotten his team to peak at the right time. They've played three straight must-win games and have answered the bell. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has unleashed schemes that prevent the big play while administering major heat up front. There was exceptional creativity on both sides of the ball in the wild-card game.

Green Bay is chomping at the bit for this second shot. Players feel they outplayed the Falcons, but they tackled poorly and let Atlanta win the physical battle the first time. The Packers are brimming with confidence and are coming together with a fury. If they can establish an early lead and some semblance of a running game, they win.

Ryan, not Rodgers, was selected to the Pro Bowl, but it's Ryan who is in search of his first playoff victory. Ryan is a much better player at home and is among the best clutch QBs in the league -- and he's only three seasons into his career. He completed 24 of 28 passes in rallying Atlanta over the Packers in Week 12.

The bye and a curtailed workload the final few weeks should allow standout tailback Michael Turner to get his legs back under him. Jason Snelling is a major threat as well. The key could be fullback Ovie Mughelli, who punished Packers defenders while clearing holes the last time they met. His Pro Bowl selection is well earned.

Michael Turner

Roddy White is one of the NFL's premier wide receivers, but he'll have to make his plays on short and intermediate-range plays against this defense. Tight end Tony Gonzalez had a big game in the first meeting. The Packers will allow Gonzalez his touches underneath. Michael Jenkins needs to be a factor to stretch the field some across the middle.

Right tackle Tyson Clabo, one of the nastiest players in the NFL, established himself early against OLB Clay Matthews, and his energy proved contagious. Clabo and left tackle Sam Baker kept Matthews away from Ryan, but he and his line mates are going to have to be better this time. This unit has gotten better facing 3-4 fronts. Center Todd McClure is going to have to play well.

John Abraham finished the season with almost identical numbers as Matthews (13 sacks, five passes defensed, one interception), and he's equally as disruptive. He has been consistent all season but really finished the season on another level. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux is very quick and plays excellent gap football.

John Abraham

Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton is going to be challenged a little more now that Green Bay is feeling better about its running game. Weak side backer Mike Peterson is the leader of this group, but he's a two-down player who might not be on the field much because Atlanta could be in nickel sets a lot. Rookie Sean Weatherspoon, who can really run, could be a huge factor in coverage.

As much as Williams has been overlooked, maybe no player in the NFL is as underrated as CB Brent Grimes. He's small, but his athleticism is off the charts, and he's so confident now that he's emerged as a ball hawk (five interceptions, 23 pass breakups). His teammate, Dunta Robinson, seems to finally be rounding into form. The physical safeties are better than people think.

Eric Weems is a Pro Bowl returner who has taken a punt and kickoff to the house. He averaged 27 yards per kickoff return. He also has 16 special teams tackles. In a game in which field position could prove critical, punter Michael Koenen needs to have a good game in that regard.

Packers coaches say that offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is one of the most difficult play-callers and play-designers to combat. His varied formations and run-pass options catch players off guard, no matter how well they are put in place. Head coach Mike Smith is so thorough in every element of preparation it's no wonder his team makes minimal mistakes.

Although Atlanta lost to New Orleans in the Georgia Dome late in the season, there is no understating the importance of home-field advantage. Ryan plays much better at home, the defense comes up with timely plays, and the Falcons never feel they are out of the game. The bye week also is huge. The coaching staff is so good, they will have a plan in place for every scenario.


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