8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Green Bay -13
Division leaders clash tonight at Lambeau Field as the red-hot Green Bay Packers host the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football. Though both teams lead their respective divisions, only one can truly be labeled as a contender, for the Falcons (5-7) currently sit atop the mediocre NFC South, which nobody seems interested in winning these days. That’s right, folks, the NFC South doesn’t feature a single team above .500, with every inhabitant at least two games under that threshold. Hell, even the Panthers at 4-8-1 are still in the mix for first place. Talk about ineptitude… So in a division reeking of all-around lousiness, Atlanta has been the least lousy, at least at the moment, for with dates with New Orleans and Carolina set to close the Regular Season, there is still plenty of time for Mike Smith and his charges to royally screw things up. But hey, if we were indeed optimists we would point out that the Dirty Birds are 3-1 since emerging from their Bye Week, and if not for some terrible clock management in a 26-24 loss at home to Cleveland, they would be winners of four in a row. Last weekend, Matt Ryan and Co. put together a convincing 29-18 victory over NFC-leading Arizona; the hosts started off fast, scoring seventeen unanswered points in the First Quarter, while relegated to a quartet of Field Goals the rest of the way. Smith’s offense had their way with the Cardinals’ shorthanded Defense, amassing 500 total yards, including 361 through the air, as Ryan deftly completed 30 of his 41 attempts (73.1%) for a pair of touchdowns and an interception. Receivers Julio Jones (189 yards) and Harry Douglas (116 yards) accounted for nineteen catches, 305 yards, and a score, while the defense was able to turn a pair of Drew Stanton passes into interceptions.
Since their Bye Week, there are two things that have improved for the Falcons; first and foremost, they’ve run the ball more effectively, while their defense has morphed into a turnover machine seemingly overnight. One of the biggest criticisms of this team in recent years has been their inability to sustain a consistent ground game. Everyone knows they can sling the ball all over the field, but they have become far too one-dimensional; on the season, Atlanta again ranks in the bottom third of the league in virtually every rushing statistic, averaging just 24.2 attempts (27th overall), 97.2 yards (23rd overall), and 4.0 yards per carry (22nd overall). Now, those numbers have risen since their respite to more respectable levels (100.3 yards), with that aforementioned total of 142 marking the second-highest figure posted this season. However, it’s not all about their commitment to running the ball, for Smith just doesn’t have the personnel to do so; the Offensive Line has been a mess all year, forcing the Coaching Staff to shuffle their Linemen on a near weekly basis. How dire is their situation in the trenches? Left Tackle Sam Baker (knee) and Center Peter Konz (knee) both landed on Injured Reserve early in the campaign, while Left Guard Justin Blalock has missed a number of games with an ailing back, but is expected to return tonight. Compounding problems is that reserves such as Joe Hawley, Lamar Holmes, and Mike Johnson are all out for the season as well, leaving arguably the most important position group outside of Quarterback dangerously thin. Then there is the defense, which has given away yardage wholesale; the Falcons rank dead-last in the NFL in total yards allowed (403.2), passing yards allowed (284.9), and net yards per pass allowed (7.7), and have relinquished the second-most yards per drive (36.8) thus far. Furthermore, they’ve only managed to record fourteen sacks. But as alluded to earlier, they have forced a wealth of turnovers of late, which of course end up being the great equalizer more often than not. In their first eight games, Atlanta logged thirteen takeaways for a minus-one differential, but in the four outings since the Bye have forced eleven turnovers, for a very favorable plus-seven differential. That trend should be put to the test tonight against a Packers’ team that hasn’t committed many turnovers at all at home this season.
Meanwhile, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team in the league hotter than the Packers (9-3), who have the look of a Super Bowl favorite at the moment. Since their disappointing 1-2 start to the campaign in which Quarterback Aaron Rodgers implored the Fan Base to R-E-L-A-X, Green Bay has since won eight out of nine contests, including each of their last four emerging from their own Bye Week. Mike McCarthy’s charges made a statement last weekend, defeating the AFC-leading Patriots in a 26-21 victory that wasn’t quite as close as the score would indicate. The hosts opened the game quickly, posting thirteen unanswered points in the First Quarter, before New England climbed back within range by Halftime with the score 23-14. They would cut into the lead even further, shaving the deficit to three points, but a 28-yard Mason Crosby Field Goal put the game out of reach with 8:45 left to play. Tom Brady and Co. would threaten twice more, but missed a Field Goal before seeing their final attempt fall short. On the day, the Packers outgained the Patriots by a sizable 158 yards, relegating them to just 4-of-10 on Third Down, while dominating the time of possession at 36:35.
At the center of this blazing run they’ve been on is none other than Aaron Rodgers, who looks like the front-runner for his second MVP award. On the season, the tenth-year veteran has been amazing, completing 66.3% of his passes for 277.1 yards per game on 7.83 net yards per attempt, with 32 touchdowns and just three interceptions, all the while posting a a Total QBR of 86.44. He’s been otherworldly at Lambeau,where he has yet to throw an interception thus far. In fact, during this four-game winning streak, Rodgers has tossed thirteen touchdowns with no interceptions.mmand as you can imagine, that kind of differential has had a sizable effect on the team as a whole; Green Bay owns the best turnover differential in the league at plus-fifteen, helping them to also lead the NFL in scoring at 31.7 points per game, and rank second in point differential at 9.4 points. Recievers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have been the recipients of his success, hauling in ten touchdowns apiece, with the latter totaling 1,119 yards. However, one of the biggest keys to this team’s success has been the maturation of their young defense. All of those draft picks used on the defensive side of the ball are bringing back some very positive returns, with many of the young players coming of age together. This unit has been staunch against the pass, yielding just 234.5 yards through the air (11th overall) on a mere 6.1 net yards per attempt (9th overall), with fifteen interceptions (5th overall), and 28.0 sacks. It’s been a true collective effort, with a dozen different Packers notching a sack, and nine recording an interception. Veteran pass-rushers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers have balanced the youth movement well, tallying 4.5 and 5.0 sacks respectively, with the latter proving to be a genius signing from division rival Chicago during the Offseason.