8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Packers -6, Over/Under: 57.5
Teams occupying polar opposite ends of the spectrum meet tonight, as the fading Atlanta Falcons look to save their season on the road at the unbeaten Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football from Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Though there are plenty of teams that have underwhelmed en route to winless starts to 2020, the Falcons (0-3, 4th in NFC South) may just be the most sensational, for you could make a very strong argument that they are only a few plays away from being at the very least 2-1. With that said, that simply isn’t reality, and in the immortal words of Hall of Fame Coach, Bill Parcells, “you are what your record says you are.” So here is Atlanta, armed with what is by and large one of the most explosive Offenses in the league, and yet they can’t seem to get out of their own way long enough to win a single game. So what in the name of Deion Sanders is going on down in the Dirty Dirty, you ask? Well, ladies and gentlemen, barring a miraculous comeback, these appear to be the last days of Dan Quinn’s reign in the ATL.
It may sound unfair to single out a coach for one loss, but in the case of this guy, Atlanta’s shocking collapse in Super Bowl LI has defined his entire tenure with the franchise, which has lasted six years now, with the faithful down the south arguing that it’s lasted far too long. On that fateful evening in February of 2017, the Falcons relinquished a 28-3 halftime lead over the New England Patriots en route to a 34-28 disaster that has loomed over the club ever since. The Dirty Birds have gone a mediocre 24-27 in the time that has passed that historic collapse, including back-to-back 7-9 campaigns in the previous two seasons, though they did manage to bounce back from a miserable 1-7 start to the 2019 term. One of the more patient owners in the league, Arthur Blank resisted firing Quinn after last year’s slow start, though it leaves us to wonder just how much longer the 50-year old can keep losing games in such a manner before the proverbial axe ultimately falls upon his head. It seems that this negative history just has a way of following the Falcons, who in their last two losses became the first team in NFL History to lose multiple games in which they led by fourteen or more points in the fourth quarter, a week after becoming the first team to ever lose a contest in which they scored at least thirty-nine points without committing a single turnover. In case you were wondering, teams that had met that criteria were previously 440-0. For their part, Matt Ryan (62.5%, 961 YDS, 6.98 NY/A, 7 TD, 2 INT, 67.7 QBR) and the Offense have certainly held up their end of the bargain, with the former MVP leading an assault that has averaged 30.0 points per game (6th Overall) on 430.0 total yards (7th Overall). However, the problem has been the Defense, which has proven unable to stop any of the opponents that they’ve met thus far, allowing the most points in the league (36.0) on an embarrassing 463.3 total yards (31st Overall). The problem here is a distribution of talent. Whereas the Offense fields a staggering eleven former First Round Picks, the Defense is woefully undermanned, getting plowed over in the running game and torched repeatedly in the Secondary. Now in his defense, we have a hard time believing that Quinn has forgotten how to coach this side of the football, for after all this is same guy who coordinated the Seattle Seahawks’ famed Legion of Boom that went to consecutive Super Bowls from 2013 to 2014. However, that scheme has largely proven to be successful given a substantial amount of talent, which this team has NEVER really managed to amass; apart from a blip in 2017 in which Atlanta ranked ninth and eighth overall in points allowed and total defense, they haven’t ranked better than twentieth in either category since that Super Bowl disaster. Compounding matters is that Quinn has taken it upon himself to call the plays on Defense over the past two years, which has firmly planted the blame on him.
“These last two weeks have been nothing short of crushing… I need to be the same guy on our best days and on our worst days… Anything past that does not help the team. All I can focus on is us finishing better. That’s where my focus needs to be.”Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons Head Coach
When we last saw the Falcons, they were in the midst of their second consecutive fourth quarter collapse, allowing the Chicago Bears to come back and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, 30-26. Leading 26-10 with just over six minutes, one would think that this particular lead was safe, but that would not be the case, as the Bears made a switch at Quarterback, benching the struggling Mitch Trubisky in favor of Nick Foles. This proved to be Atlanta’s undoing, as the veteran Quarterback went on to complete 16-of-29 passes for 188 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, leading Chicago on three consecutive touchdown drives to win the game. The hosts on the other hand, went completely stagnant on Offense, punting on three successive drives in which they amassed one single yard, before their final drive of the affair ended with an interception on a pass deep downfield to Calvin Ridley (21 REC, 349 YDS, 16.6 Y/R, 4 TD) at the visitor’s 24-yard line. In the end, Ryan was only 19-of-28 for 238 yards with a touchdown and an interception, with Ridley performing well in the absence of Julio Jones (11 REC, 181 YDS, 16.5 Y/R, 0 TD), hauling in five receptions for 110 yards. Defensively, Quinn’s charges relinquished 437 total yards on twenty-four first downs, rushing for 130 yards on twenty-five carries, and possessing the football for a commanding 34:50. With Green Bay’s juggernaut on tap tonight, it’s not going to get any easier for Atlanta who will likely be without a number of starters on Defense, with Defensive Linemen, Takkarist McKinley (7 TKL, 1 TFL, 7 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 PD) and Grady Jarrett (14 TKL, 4 TFL, 5 QBH, 2.5 SK, 1 FR), dealing with hip and groin maladies, while Defensive Backs, Ricardo Allen (1 TKL, 1 PD) and A.J. Terrell (11 TKL, 1 QBH), missing last weekend’s collapse with the former nursing an elbow and the latter quarantined in COVID-19 protocol.
Meanwhile, as the Falcons appear to be mired in their own despair, the Packers (3-0, 1st in NFC North) are indeed living the good life following their flawless unbeaten start to the campaign. Even after their surprise 13-3 finish last season that saw them advance all the way to the NFC Championship Game, there was still a good deal of pessimism surrounding Green bay entering 2020. Though the results were great on the field, the relationship between Quarterback and Head Coach didn’t seem to be the warmest. Well, maybe not as cold as the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, but definitely not as warm as HOTlanta. Needless to say, there remained many questions about Aaron Rodgers’ (67.0%, 887 YDS, 8.00 NY/A, 9 TD, 0 INT, 90.9 QBR) rapport with Matt LaFleur, particularly after an Offseason that was significantly abridged due to COVID-19, and a curious expedition through Free Agency and the NFL Draft, that instead of giving the two-time MVP more weapons, gave him his potential successor instead. Now 36-years old, Rodgers certainly is aware of his mortality, and even openly questioned how much longer he would be playing for the franchise that drafted him back in 2005, refusing to rule out playing for another team. And as for LaFluer, there still seemed to be some lingering questions about his legitimacy as a Head Coach; the 40-year old was hired on largely on his connections to offensive masterminds Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, whom he spent years working under before finally spending a middling season with the Tennessee Titans calling plays. There seemed to be this notion that the young coach still needed to earn the respect of his Quarterback, with the lack of Offseason activities and a proper Training Camp preventing the two from coming together.
With all that said, everyone in the state of Wisconsin will be happy to hear that that all appears to be much ado about nothing, as the Packers are off to their best start in ages, with Rodgers quite frankly never looking better. Much of last year’s success was attributed to a vastly improved Defense, but this season it looks like the Offense has evolved by leaps and bounds, with LaFleur’s vision for the attack coming to fruition. Under his predecessor, the Offense looked stale and unimaginative, constantly relying upon Rodgers’ exploits to make things happen, but this new approach has been a breath of fresh air, with Green Bay finally getting back to running the football. Balance was a long missing component under Mike McCarthey, and LaFleur along with General Manager, Brian Gutekunst, spent the Offseason placing an emphasis on bolstering this neglected facet of the Offense. Even after the emergence of Aaron Jones (60 TCH, 398 YDS, 6.6 Y/TCH, 5 TD) at Tailback, they added a more physical rusher, A.J. Dillon (62nd Overall) in the Second Round of the Draft, followed Tight End, Josiah Deguara (94th Overall) in the Third, and three Offensive Linemen, Jon Runyan (192nd Overall), Jake Hanson (208th Overall), and Simon Stepaniak (209th Overall) in the Sixth. What’s the best friend of an aging Quarterback, you ask? A successful run game, which helps alleviate the pressure on his shoulders, while also opening up the potential of Play-Action, which when you consider his skillset, is a frightening proposition. As a result, the Packers have been downright dominant on this side of the football, averaging a staggering 40.7 points per game (1st Overall) on 467.4 total yards (2nd Overall), including 295.7 yards coming through the air (6th Overall) and another 171.7 coming on the ground (2nd Overall), all the while converting on a healthy 50.0% of their third downs (5th Overall), and not committing a single turnover through three outings. In fact, no team since the NFL/AFL Merger has scored more points through their first three games of the season than Green Bay, who have torched everything in sight. Again, Rodgers looks far more comfortable within LaFleur’s scheme than he did last year, completing 67.0% of his attempts for an average of 295.7 yards per game on 8.00 net yards per attempt (his highest mark since 2011), with nine touchdowns in comparison to zero interceptions, with a QBR of 90.9. Furthermore, a year after leading the league in touchdowns, Jones is at it again with five total scores, while averaging a sizable 6.1 yards per rush.
“We’ve gotten in a good flow… I feel so much more comfortable in the offense this year, and I think Matt has really settled in to the rhythm of the play calling, and it’s made my job a lot easier.”Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers Quarterback
When we last saw the Packers, they were busy storming the fanless Mercedes-Benz Superdome, outgunning the New Orleans Saints in a 37-30 victory. In a matchup pitting two of the league’s most explosive attacks against each other, Green Bay was a decisive victor as they rarely met any resistance from the hosts, amassing 369 total yards on twenty-four first downs, and completing 6-of-13 attempts on third and fourth down. The visitors scored on five of their first six drives of the night, three of which were sixty yards or more, with the latter of the two checking in at seventy-five yards apiece and culminating in a touchdown. Rodgers was excellent, completing 21-of-32 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns, finding some relatively obscure targets, such as Marcedes Lewis (2 REC, 22 YDS, 11.0 Y/R, 1 TD), Robert Tonyan (7 REC, 75 YDS, 10.7 Y/R, 2 TD) for scores, while hooking up with Allen Lazard (13 REC, 254 YDS, 119.5 Y/R, 2 TD) frequently throughout the affair to the tune of six receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown. Oh, and did we fail to mention that Rodgers favorite target, Pro Bowl Receiver, Davante Adams (17 REC, 192 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 2 TD), sat out the game due to a tender hamstring? Though skeptics love to point out his lack of weapons, the eight-time Pro-Bowler seems to do quite alright for himself, which is a notion that Atlanta will no doubt become familiar with tonight.