When: 3:25 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Georgia Dome.
Series: Packers lead, 17-13.
Line: Falcons by 3,
Coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy (116-64-1) vs. Atlanta’s Dan Quinn (12-11).
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
FIRST-DOWN RUN: The Falcons lead the NFL in average gain on first down at 8.2 yards, which in turn sets up their entire top-ranked offense. “If you let them play-action pass and run the ball a little bit they’ll be tough,” an assistant coach for a recent Atlanta opponent said. With a substantial gain on first down, quarterback Matt Ryan likes to go bombs away. “They take shots, that’s what they do,” an executive in personnel said. “Play-action. He wants to push it downfield. They’re putting it up every week whoever they play. Julio Jones is playing at the top of his game. (Mohamed) Sanu has been OK as a No. 2. Solid possession guy. It’s surprising, but as many points as they score they’re still not very good (tied for 18th) in the red zone. Part of that is when everything’s constricted you can double up and not worry about the vertical threat of Julio and just kind of bracket him.”
ON THE OUTSIDE: Second-year pro Vic Beasley is the Falcons’ best pass rusher. The strong-side linebacker in the base defense, he puts his hand down in sub defenses and plays against the right tackle (Bryan Bulaga). Of his 6½ sacks, 3½ came against Denver when he was up against right tackle Ty Sambrailo. “He has some success rushing against the typically slow right tackles,” one scout said. “The Denver game is where he had all his sacks. That game comes with an asterisk with Ty Sambrailo playing right tackle. He’s all speed. I don’t see a changeup. He can’t convert speed to power. He’s just going to win with speed. If he doesn’t, then that’s it. You feel the speed off the edge. He has the talent. But he tries speed to power and there’s nothing.”
FAMILY AFFAIR: Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, 30, will spend much of the game against left tackle Jake Matthews, who is 24 and his cousin. Jake was the sixth player selected in the 2014 draft. “He’s a pretty good player but he hasn’t taken that step to the next level,” a defensive coach for a recent Falcons’ opponent said. “I’m sure they’re happy to have him but he definitely hasn’t elevated his game to one of the better tackles in the league.” Added one scout: “He’s a good athlete, technically sound, got the bloodlines. But his lack of length always gets him in trouble. Guys get into his frame and he doesn’t play heavy. He has issues in protection. In zone, he can get to the second level. Good speed, good balance. But (from) your left tackle you’d like a guy with more length and ability to protect.” He said Matthews would make a better guard.
SECONDARY OUTLOOK: At safety, the Falcons start rookie Keanu Neal on the strong side and undersized Ricardo Allen on the weak side. “Neal is a tough box player,” said one scout. “Kind of an enforcer. He’ll have some issues in coverage where the eyes get locked in on play-action, but he brings a presence. He’ll be a good player. He can be exposed as a deep-field player. …I didn’t like Allen’s range. He’s small. You can see that in his tackling. He can be exploited. …Neal and (Desmond) Trufant and (Robert) Alford are good enough individually but the sum of them playing together is not.”
DEEP ROTATION: The Falcons can be expected to shuffle as many as nine defensive linemen. “It’s an odd mish-mash of guys,” one scout said. “Beasley is just a fast edge guy. (Grady) Jarrett is tiny. (Adrian) Clayborn is a brawler. (Jonathan) Babineaux is a 3-technique. (Brooks) Reed is a real high-effort guy. (Dwight) Freeney is at the end of his career but still has that good up-field quickness. If you ask me what their philosophy is up front, I have no idea. They have 15 sacks but they don’t consistently generate pressure.”
VIEWS OF THE GAME
Are the Falcons a paper tiger? Maybe. They don’t have an elite player on defense, Julio Jones is their only true receiving threat, Matt Ryan is prone to the killer interception and their crowd is late to arrive and not overly supportive. An underdog for the first time this season, the Packers have an excellent chance to win.
It's hard to have any regard for a beat-up Packers secondary when it's facing arguably the best player in the NFL. The only way the Packers win this game is if they blitz the heck out of Matt Ryan and sack him at least a half dozen times. Don't think that will happen. Falcons 31, Packers 24
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice -- I'll just outscore you. The Packers might find success with the dinky-dunk passing game that beat the Bears last week, but Atlanta is a different animal. Even if the Packers put up points, Julio Jones and the Falcons will put up more. Falcons 31, Packers 23
Atlanta is at home and needs a win after two straight losses by five points combined. The Falcons also have a huge edge with the game’s best receiver, Julio Jones, matched against a secondary missing its top three cornerbacks. The guess here is that’s too much for the Packers to overcome. Falcons 31, Packers 24
The Packers had no problem handling Odell Beckham Jr. a few weeks ago, but that really was an exception when it comes to elite receivers. Remember what Larry Fitzgerald did to them in the playoffs last year? What about Demaryius Thomas out in Denver? No offense to Fitzgerald or Thomas, but Julio Jones is the best receiver on the planet right now. A depleted Packers secondary will have a long day. Falcons 34, Packers 24