Well, it’s not December yet, but there’s just no getting around the magnitude of Sunday’s game in Atlanta between the 8-2 Falcons and 7-3 Packers, and the players aren’t ignoring it.
“Not to sugarcoat it or nothin’, but it’s a big one,” receiver James Jones said. “It’s a big game. They’re 8-2 in the NFC. Everybody is shooting for this playoff run. Everybody wants home-field advantage. This is a big game. We know the impact this game can take down the road.”
The potential impact stems not just from the fact that the Falcons have the NFC’s best record and the Packers are one game back. But also, four other teams – the Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia Eagles – sit one game off that top mark at 7-3 as well.
That’s quite the logjam, leaving the race for the top two playoff seeds in the conference, which come with first-round byes and home field in the divisional round, wide open. It’s worth noting the Bears and Eagles play each other this week as well in another key NFC showdown.
But consider this too – if the playoffs were to start today, one of the aforementioned half dozen teams would be the odd one out because someone from the NFC West (where Seattle currently leads the division at 5-5) would own one of the six spots.
So while it’s natural for the Packers to view this game as one they can use to declare themselves among the league’s elite, they’re also in tune with the reality that a loss might make their road to the postseason that much harder, especially if the NFC North-rival Bears are able to assume the lead within the division.
“We’re not looking at it as making a statement,” defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. “You look at it as you want to keep pace and you want to stay up among the top. A win here would assure that. Obviously a loss, you drop back down some, and you don’t want to drop, especially with as many teams as there are on top right now. You want to make sure you keep pace and keep winning.”
Winning is something both the Falcons and Packers have been doing frequently of late. Both teams come into Sunday’s matchup riding four-game winning streaks.
Atlanta’s began following a two-touchdown loss at Philadelphia in Week 6. Since then, the Falcons have averaged 31.5 points per game and knocked off two playoff contenders at home in Tampa Bay and Baltimore (7-3, tied for first in the AFC North).
Meanwhile, Green Bay’s run started after back-to-back overtime losses to Washington and Miami in Weeks 5-6. Since then the Packers have beaten the border-rival Vikings twice, allowed just 10 points over their last three games, and scored 76 over their last two.
Notable for the Packers is that they haven’t turned the ball over in their last 3½ games and their penalties are way down, with three or fewer in each of the last four contests. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers attributed the sharper play to the “urgency level picking up” prior to the first Minnesota game, with a faster practice tempo boosting the energy level and confidence amongst the players.
“It definitely starts in practice,” said receiver Greg Jennings, who is on a tear with 520 receiving yards and six touchdowns over the last five games. “When we’re able to go out there and execute, stay on top of things the right way, get it going in the right direction on the practice field, it trickles over to the game.”
Judging by the results, that has applied to both sides of the ball, as the defense has climbed into a tie for the No. 1 spot in the league in points allowed over this stretch.
“I’ve only been here two years, but (the defense’s confidence) is the highest it’s been since I’ve been here,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “It’s an unspoken language. When we hit the field for practice, we know what time it is. When we hit the game, we just look in each others’ eyes, and we know we’re ready to go.”
They’ll have to be ready from the get-go in the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons are an impressive 18-1 over the past three seasons with Raji’s former Boston College teammate Matt Ryan as their starting quarterback (18-3 overall). They’re 5-0 at home this season, though four of those wins have come by a touchdown or less.
But the Packers have plenty of road success to hang their hat on. They’re 3-2 away from home this season, with wins over two playoff contenders in the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles, and they lost a game they controlled at Chicago in the final seconds, mostly due to a franchise-record 18 penalties.
Plus, the defense has allowed only three points over the last two road games, dropping its season average to just 11.8 points per game on the road. Meanwhile, the offense continued its recent efficiency in domes in last week’s 31-3 win at Minnesota by topping 340 total yards for the eighth time in its last nine indoor games (including playoffs).
“The defense has been consistent all year, and it’s been nice offensively to start to hold up our end of the bargain as well,” Rodgers said. “It’s going to be a tough game for us, tough environment. But I think that we’ve proven under Coach McCarthy the kind of road team we can be.”
The opportunity to prove it with the stakes as high as they can be for a Week 12 contest awaits on Sunday.
During their conference calls with Wisconsin media this week, both Ryan and Atlanta head coach Mike Smith downplayed somewhat the significance of this game, emphasizing a level-headed approach and taking “another step” toward their goals.
That all sounds good, and maybe they can afford to think that way when they currently possess the one-game lead on the rest of the conference and they face the 1-9 Carolina Panthers twice over the season’s final four weeks.
Then again, it’s hard to believe they don’t internally recognize the impact a matchup like this carries.
“They have the best record in the NFC, and if you want to be the best you’ve got to beat the best,” Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “This is definitely a challenge that we’re embracing, and I think it’s going to be a good measuring stick to see where we’re at and see how much further we can go.”
Even when it’s still November.
“I’ve played in this league long enough to realize you don’t really need to start talking about the postseason until December football,” Rodgers said. “But if you take a step back and realize we’ve got six games left, these guys are a game ahead of us and the other teams that are chasing them …
“You don’t really want to fall two games plus a tiebreaker behind the Falcons, if you start thinking about home-field advantage in the playoffs should we be fortunate enough to get there. This is a big game for us.”
Additional coverage – Nov. 24