Aaron Rogers and Matt Ryna might be the two best young quarterbacks in the NFL. They'll meet tonight to see which one - Rodgers' Packers or Ryan's Falcons - can make it one step from the Super Bowl.
It's time to put up or shut up for the NFC's top-seeded team, the Atlanta Falcons, when they square off with the Green Bay Packers Saturday night in an NFC Divisional Playoff from the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta earned home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs and captured its first NFC South title since the 2004 campaign with a 13-3 record in the regular season. After getting a week off to determine who their opponent would be in the second round of the playoffs, the Falcons discovered Green Bay punched its ticket to Georgia after a big win at Philadelphia last weekend.
On top of planning for the Packers, who recorded a 21-16 win over the Eagles during Wild Card weekend, Atlanta has been dodging snowflakes. Several schools, government buildings and roads were closed this week due to the heavy accumulation produced by a winter storm, but it hasn't stopped the Falcons in their preparation.
"Our guys did a great job of carpooling and picking each other up," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. "We had all but two [players in]. We actually tried to get two of them picked up but the roads were closed. They weren't letting anyone in."
Sack leader and defensive end John Abraham was able to get rescued after the car he was driving in skidded off the road and into a ditch. Abraham and the driver were fine, and the big defender was picked up by fellow end Kroy Biermann.
Smith is counting on Abraham to spark his defense against one of the top quarterbacks in the league in Aaron Rodgers. Abraham had the only sack of Rodgers during a 20-17 victory over the Packers at the Georgia Dome back on Nov. 28 and finished the regular season with a team-high 13.
Abraham, however, is one of the few veterans on this young Falcons squad that's led by third-year quarterback Matt Ryan, who sparked the team to a 7-1 home record this season and is 20-2 all-time under center at the Georgia Dome. Ryan finished the season with a career-high 3,705 yards through the air and 28 touchdowns passes to nine interceptions. He also tied Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the most regular-season wins by a quarterback (33) in his first three years since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
Ryan will be making his second playoff appearance and was outdueled by Arizona's Kurt Warner in a 30-24 loss back in 2008. He was 26-of-40 for 199 yards with two touchdown passes and a pair of interceptions in that one. Ryan's a bit older and wiser now, and hopes the experience pays off.
Running back Michael Turner is the other Atlanta weapon hoping to rebound from that last postseason appearance against the Cardinals, as he ran for just 42 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Expect the Falcons to utilize Turner early to set up the pass attack.
Pass defense was Green Bay's calling card in the win over the Eagles. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers probably expected to see a lot more of Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy, who was held to 46 yards on 12 carries, but his main concern, however, was devising a plan to stop elusive quarterback Michael Vick.
On the very first play of the game, Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop blind- sided the left-handed Eagles quarterback for a sack and set the tone for the rest of the evening. Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive end Jarius Wynn each contributed a sack of their own.
"We've had a few ups and downs on this roller coaster of a year. But hopefully we're peaking at the right time," Matthews stated. "Three wins in a row, all playoff-like environments in which we need to win or else we go home. We've got another one on the road now in a very hostile environment. We feel good about where we're at. You can say we're dangerous, but we're just playing at the level we know how."
It was the Packers' first postseason win on the road since a 23-10 victory at San Francisco in the 1997 NFC Championship Game.
If there was one spot the Packers needed to work on entering last Sunday's showdown, it was the running game. James Starks alleviated those worries, however, by grinding out a franchise rookie playoff-record 123 yards on 23 carries to take the pressure off of Rodgers and give the team some balance. Rodgers was able to win his first career postseason game by completing 18-of-27 passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns.
Green Bay was a nightmare for the Eagles on third down as well, converting 8- of-13 opportunities. It was the team's second-best output on third down this season, behind only an impressive 10-of-15 clip against Dallas back in Week 9.
Rodgers didn't throw any interceptions, but did have one of Green Bay's two lost fumbles. He didn't get the win in the Packers' first meeting with Atlanta this season, but was able to throw for 344 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. His favorite target all season, wide receiver Greg Jennings, led the way with 119 yards on five catches in that contest.
Expect Green Bay to stick with the aerial assault on Saturday, while sprinkling in a mix of Starks and teammate Brandon Jackson out of the backfield.