‘Monday Night Football,’ Falcons vs. Packers 2014: Both teams fight for division leads
The Packers and Falcons are fighting for the NFC North and NFC South, respectively. The two will meet on Monday Night Football in Week 14.
The Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers are atop their respective divisions, but the two teams have looked very different this season. The Packers are 9-3, among the best teams in the league and currently fighting off the Detroit Lions in the NFC North. Atlanta is just 5-7, but holds a slim division lead over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
The latter division is the worst in football, though the Falcons have managed some quality wins this year. With the division title in sight, the Falcons managed to beat the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13, unseating one of the top teams in the league. The Saints haven’t done a whole lot to inspire confidence, but then again, neither has Atlanta outside of the Arizona win.
The Packers, on the other hand, have won their last four games, including a dominant 53-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 11 and a solid win over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Week 13. They’re fighting to hold off the better team in the aforementioned Lions, but Green Bay should clearly be favored in this game.
Here are three big keys for Monday:
1. Can the Falcons offense keep the other foot from falling?
Atlanta’s offense was gangbusters against the Cardinals. The team piled up 500 yards, Matt Ryan threw for 361 yards and two scores, Steven Jackson crossed the century mark on just 18 carries and Julio Jones blew up for 10 catches and 189 yards. In short, the offense worked like the Falcons envisioned it working when they put it together.
But, was last Sunday just another flash in the pan, another fleeting glimpse of a talented offense shackled by poor coaching and inconsistent play? There have been outbursts like this before, only to see the Falcons revert back to pumpkins. Consider it was not only the first time Jackson has rushed for 100 yards this season, but it was just the second time he’s gone for more than 60 yards. Ryan has been inconsistent, owning just three games with more than 300 yards passing.
The Packers, meanwhile, have abruptly become a dangerous defensive team. After a shaky start, they’ve held opponents to 21 points or fewer in each of their four consecutive wins, a number easily low enough for their red-hot offense to outdo. If the Falcons can keep up on the scoreboard, they’ll have to prove that their performance in Week 13 is something they can replicate.
2. Can Atlanta generate a pass rush?
The Falcons invested heavily in their defensive line over the offseason, but they have the second-fewest sacks in the league to show for it. That lack of pressure has been a major reason the pass defense ranks dead last, and it should be a major concern against an explosive Packers passing game.
Aaron Rodgers and his brilliant receiving corps rightly deserve plenty of credit in Green Bay, but the offensive line has been a major part of the passing game’s success. The unit has outlasted early-season injuries and depth issues to at least come close to making good on Mike McCarthy’s preseason assertion that they’re the best offensive line he’s ever coached. The Packers have yielded the second-fewest pressures in the league and Rodgers is on pace to finish with his lowest sack number ever in a full season. All of those big passes downfield — which have occurred with increasing regularity during this win streak — don’t happen if the line doesn’t allow time for the play to develop.
If the Falcons want to keep from getting torched by explosive plays, they have to find a way to disrupt Rodgers in the backfield.
3. Can Green Bay’s secondary slow down Julio Jones?
As mentioned previously, Jones went off for 189 yards on 10 catches (plus a touchdown) last week. And that came against Patrick Peterson, one of the best cornerbacks in the league. In fairness to Peterson, no one has been able to stop Jones this season — he ranks third in the league in receiving yards and fourth in receptions, and has gone over 100 yards in five games.
Shutting Jones down is likely out of the question, but the Packers need to at least slow him down. The responsibility for doing so comes down to starting corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, a duo that’s been fairly successful in limiting big-play receivers this season.
Here are the production numbers of elite receivers facing Green Bay this season:
Week 3 — Calvin Johnson: six catches, 82 yards
Week 4 — Brandon Marshall: two catches, 19 yards, one touchdown
Week 6 — Mike Wallace: five catches, 67 yards, one touchdown
Week 10 — Brandon Marshall: eight catches, 112 yards, one touchdown*
The Packers certainly didn’t shut them down, but outside of Marshall’s Week 10 game (*which was fueled by a garbage-time 45-yard touchdown with the Packers up by 45 points), none of them put up game-breaking numbers. If they can at least keep Jones to a respectable production level, it will put immense pressure on the rest of the Falcons offense to keep pace with Rodgers and Co.
How to Watch
Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden
The Packers opened as 10.5-point favorites, but the line increased further throughout the week. Some books had Green Bay favored at -13, according to OddsShark.
All eight of the picks from SB Nation’s own experts are going with the Packers, unsurprisingly. Check out the full Week 14 picks here.