Green Bay limps into the NFC title game after gutting out one of the best playoff thrillers in recent NFL history against the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers might be playing Sunday without one of their best wide receivers -- Jordy Nelson (ribs) -- but remain very much in the mix thanks to a series of transcendent performances from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his supporting cast.
Rodgers' throw to tight end Jared Cook was the best postseason throw since Manning to Manningham and the window was tighter. It was one of several game-changing or game-saving plays made directly by Rodgers, leaving me to believe that we will be treated to yet another evolution in his performance level this winter. At times, it seemed Rodgers was out of surprises but he's just getting started. The quarterback admitted on ESPN on Wednesday that the Cook pass was the first time in his NFL career that he drew up a play on the spot, moments before the snap. I'm not suggesting this is a new Packers game plan moving forward, but think about how dialed in someone has to be to make that kind of decision on the fly with the game on the line.
Atlanta, meanwhile, survived Seattle's best shot, which was nowhere near good enough. In some ways, the Falcons come into this game reminding me of the Patriots. They are a team that can convert from five-wide to power mode relatively quickly and, at the same time, use the balance between their two offensive styles to puzzle the opposing defense. On Julio Jones' first-quarter touchdown drive, the run-action was so effective for Atlanta because of how physical Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were once they reached the second level and began hitting linebackers and safeties. By the time they faked a handoff on Jones' touchdown, seven of Seattle's defenders immediately committed to the run, while the two defensive backs floating in space near the catch were so caught off guard that they could not adjust in time.
Falcons ownership: This isn't the lose your job kind of pressure, but with a new stadium set to open in July of 2017 it would be unbelievably advantageous to feature a team coming off a run to the Super Bowl. While this club will still draw -- Ryan and Julio Jones are fun to watch, regardless of the situation -- the Falcons will more than likely have a different look next year. As our NFL Network team of reporters led by Michael Silver noted this week, Shanahan will more than likely skip town and take his playbook to San Francisco. Thirty-five points a game at home will probably go with it.
However, a Super Bowl run builds a unique equity with the fans, which is important when you're constructing a $1.5 billion stadium set to replace the Georgia Dome. The window is by no means closing on this group -- some of their best players are first or second-year stars still firmly under team control -- but the window to make a great first impression is.
Matchup to watch
Vic Beasley vs. Bryan Bulaga and TJ Lang:Vic Beasley can further jam a wrench into Green Bay's troubles. The second-year sack artist played just 56 percent of Atlanta's snaps last week but was effective at launching himself off the right side and flushing Russell Wilson out of the pocket. He was equally effective as a spy, often standing up, grappling with a defensive end and shadowing the quarterback as he danced around in the pocket to try and find an open receiver. Wilson and Rodgers have similar pocket mobility and I would not be surprised to see Beasley used in a similar agent-of-chaos type role.
Beasley's role will be significant because he has the power to limit Rodgers' pocket mobility and scope of vision. Rodgers seems infinitely more comfortable when there is a clean and wide pocket to shuffle around. While many pass rushers have tried and failed to bring Rodgers down, there probably will not be a more athletic pass rusher left to face in this postseason. Beasley also drew some advantageous double teams against the Seahawks last weekend that were not taken advantage of. I have a feeling coach Dan Quinn has something up his sleeve.
While some of this confidence is dependent on Jones recovering quickly and maintaining his physical style throughout, I see the game tipping toward Atlanta. Their defense is playing well at the right time and, although Green Bay has a slight advantage (Football Outsiders had them seven spots ahead of Atlanta in their season-ending DVOA ratings) and is probably a little deeper at linebacker and safety, I believe Atlanta has a unit that will hold up better against the type of game we're expecting.
And then there is this: Despite Rodgers' recent mastery, there has not been a quarterback displaying more consistent excellence this season than Ryan. Buoyed by a well-versed, powerful running game and the only offensive line in football to play all 17 games together this season, it just seems practical to bet on the home team in this one.