So will this be the week? The Green Bay Packers, on the brink of elimination, welcome a team already eliminated from playoffs in the Atlanta Falcons. Both teams were considered division title contenders when the season began. Injuries eroded the Falcons throughout the season and the loss of Aaron Rodgers last month produced a winless November for the Pack. Rodgers has resumed practicing, even in pads for the first time on Thursday, but I can't imagine he'll be nothing more than a street clothed, spectator again on Sunday. Matt Flynn is expected to make his second start. The offense was completely shut down by the Lions on Thanksgiving but they'll play a defense this week that is 26th in total yards, 30th against the rush. Even if the Falcons follow the script of recent Green Bay opponents and stack the line of scrimmage, daring the pass, the Packers should be able to move the ball. Atlanta is dead last in third down defense and only three teams are more generous in the red zone. Their best play makers are Jonathan Babineaux on the 4-3 defensive line and rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow, their leading tackler. Osi Umenyiora, the former Giant, leads the team with six and a half sacks but he appears to be on his last legs. Injury has forced rookie Desmond Trufant into the lineup at cornerback. He's flanked by Asante Samuel. The former Eagle is a gambler in the secondary and quite frankly, I wouldn't take him with me to Las Vegas, he's losing far more than he wins. On offense, the Falcons have a more than capable quarterback in Matt Ryan, now in his 6th season. Despite the loss of star receiver Julio Jones early in the year, Ryan is still putting up 273 passing yards per game, 5th best in the league. Harry Douglass has emerged as his primary target with 66 catches and 906 yards. Grandpa Tony Gonzalez came out of retirement and can still play. 62 receptions and a team high five touchdowns. Roddy White has been bothered by injury and his production has really tailed off. The Falcons are a horrible running team. They replaced Michael Turner with Stephen Jackson, a player the Packers expressed interest in. Jackson, on the plus side of 30, missed several games with injuries and has gained only 325 yards this season, 84 of which came last week in the win over Buffalo. He appears to be rounding into form but it's a bit late. Former Wisconsin Badger Peter Konz opened the year at center but got benched because of poor play and is now playing right guard.
So what are the guys thinking as they approach the first of really four, do or die Sundays? Let's pay a call on the Packer locker room:
So if this is the week, here's what has to happen. Flynn has to show the ability to drive the ball, in icy weather, into coverage and on time. There won't be many deep shots because Flynn has looked woefully inaccurate in mid-range to long passes. 8 in the box be damned. Eddie Lacy will have to pound into the 7 and 8 man walls. His job could be made more difficult if Evan Dietrich-Smith can't play and the offensive line has to be shuffled again. Wide receivers must beat man coverage on the outside, something they surprisingly couldn't do in Detroit. On defense, it's pressure Ryan. His offensive line has been leaky. Jackson hasn't played enough to rip off a big game on the ground but he's still dangerous. Special teams must win the field position battle on what will be a frigid day.
Mike Holmgren once told me winning streaks are self-perpetuating and opponents have to out play you to win. The downward spiral as he called it, is far more difficult to escape. The Falcons ended theirs last week against the Bills and the Packers have struggled mightily for answers during the 0-4-1 month of November. It's either win, or make off-season plans early. I think the Packers will live to fight another day, barely, a 20-16 victory is my call.