ATLANTA — The NFC Championship Game is quite a mismatch.
Not on the field, mind you.
The Atlanta Falcons are playing as well as they have all season. Ditto for the Green Bay Packers. It should be quite a shootout when they meet Sunday in the final game at the Georgia Dome, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
But when it comes to the tradition and history of the two franchises, the Packers have a decided edge. It’s a landslide, really.
Lambeau Field. Cheeseheads. Thirteen NFL championships. Four Super Bowl titles. The snow and the tundra. The green and the gold.
Hmmm . . . give us a minute.
In 51 seasons, they have played in only one Super Bowl and never won a championship. For much of their existence, the Falcons were burdened with cartoonish ownership, laughable draft picks and horrific personnel moves such as trading away a strong-armed young quarterback in the early 1990s.
Brett Favre went on to have a pretty good career with the Packers.
Favre’s successor understands the significance of playing with such a storied team.
“It’s like no other place in our sport,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has guided the Packers (12-6) to eight straight wins. “As a football historian and someone who’s loved the game since a young age, you realize how special it is to be part of this team, but also know that this team has been around since 1919, and it’s going to be around long after you’re done.”
The Falcons (12-5) don’t have that sort of legacy to fall back on.
But they do have the highest-scoring team in the league, led by MVP candidate Matt Ryan, and a home-field edge that paid off last week.
The Georgia Dome, which will be torn down after this season and replaced by $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, was as loud as anyone could remember for a divisional-round victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The Packers’ dramatic upset of the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys ensured one more game would be played at the 70,000-seat stadium with the big top-like roof.
These Falcons are only looking forward. They don’t care what happened before.
“The guys who played here in 1999 aren’t here,” defensive end Dwight Freeney said. “The guys who played in Green Bay in 1995 aren’t there.”
Here are some things to watch for Sunday:
All-Pro receiver Julio Jones was limited in practice after being sidelined at the end of last week’s win because of a lingering toe sprain. Jones, who had 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns during the regular season, said it won’t be an issue.
“No effect at all,” he said.
The prognosis for the Packers’ top receiver was a bit murkier. Jordy Nelson returned to practice at midweek, but he’s still recovering from broken ribs that forced him to miss the victory in Dallas.
While Nelson said he’s still a long way from a full recovery, he didn’t rule out a possible return against the Falcons. The Packers sure could use him. Davante Adams (ankle) and Geronimo Allison (hamstring) were also dealing with injuries that forced them to miss practice time.
Matthews vs. Matthews
Keep an eye on the family matchup between Packers linebacker Clay Matthews and Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews.
The cousins were denied a chance to square off during the regular season. Clay Matthews was injured and didn’t play in the Falcons’ 33-32 victory.
Both Matthewses are ready to go in this one. Clay had five sacks during the season, while Jake is the chief protector of Ryan’s blind side.
“Anytime you get to play with or against family, those are going to be the games that, when it’s all said and done, I’ll remember the best,” Jake Matthews said.
If defense wins championships, these teams wouldn’t have gotten nearly this far. Both rank near the bottom in most of the major categories, but their dynamic offenses helped cover up the shortcomings.
The Falcons’ defense has actually shown significant improvement late in the season, not unexpected for a young group that starts as many as four rookies. Against the Seahawks, the Falcons surrendered a long touchdown on the opening possession and then kept the Seahawks out of the end zone until the closing minutes.
The Packers are dealing with a battered secondary that managed to contain the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. in the wild-card game but was torched by Cowboys star Dez Bryant.
LaDarius Gunter, an undrafted free agent, drew most of the assignments on Beckham and Bryant. He likely will be the one trying to defend Jones on Sunday.
Key to the game
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
The Falcons have to take into account Rodgers’ elusiveness in the pocket. The Cowboys attempted to contain him with a three-man rush and drop eight into coverage with a defender assigned to shadow Rodgers when he left the pocket. The Falcons took a similar approach with rookie OLB De’Vondre Campbell against mobile Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. Additionally, Rodgers likes to go hurry-up at times, depending on down and distance, and prevent a defense from inserting substitutions. So Falcons coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith have to plan for that tactic.
Matchup to watch
Packers DC Dom Capers vs. Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan
Capers’ challenge is to produce a game plan that can slow versatile Falcons RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and cover big-play receivers led by Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and TE Austin Hooper. Capers played a lot of nickel against the Dallas Cowboys, putting pressure on his defensive backs to play man coverage and leaving his front line and linebackers to contain Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott. Shanahan has so many weapons that as long as the Falcons’ offensive line can give QB Matt Ryan time to go through his progressions, the Packers will be hard-pressed to keep the Falcons under their NFL-leading scoring average of 33.8 points. Shanahan’s offense also led the NFL in average yards per play (6.97).
By the numbers
Touchdown-to-interception ratio by two-time NFL MVP QB Rodgers during the Packers’ eight-game winning streak, including 6-1 in the postseason. He led the NFL with 40 scoring passes in the regular season. Until the third quarter vs. the Cowboys, he had thrown 318 consecutive passes without an interception. He had thrown 23 TD passes between INTs, three shy of a league record held by Tom Brady.