Packers aim to turn page in rematch vs. Falcons
Eight months ago, the Green Bay Packers took an eight-game winning streak to Atlanta for the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons.
It was a massacre. The Falcons held a 24-point lead at halftime and coasted to a 44-21 victory.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy had no interest in taking a verbal walk down memory lane on Wednesday, ahead of Sunday's road game against Atlanta.
"If you're thinking about last year and talking about last year, you're just wasting time and energy," McCarthy said. "To get to the point where you're playing in January and the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl, you've got to focus on what's going on today. That's really what our guys are focused on."
It stands to reason that McCarthy is focused on the here and now rather than January.
After all, injuries had obliterated his secondary and MVP quarterback Matt Ryan and star receiver Julio Jones took full advantage. Ryan finished with 392 passing yards and four touchdowns (plus one rushing score), with 271 yards and three total TDs in the first half alone. Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns, including a 73-yarder to start the second half.
The man attempting to cover Jones that day was LaDarius Gunter. The former undrafted free agent had been forced into the No. 1 role because of injuries.
On Tuesday, Gunter was released -- a sign of how much better the Packers believe they are at cornerback. With free-agent addition Davon House added to the starting lineup and Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins past last year's groin injuries, Green Bay limited Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to 14-of-27 passing and 158 yards in last week's 17-9 victory.
The Packers' defense will face a much bigger challenge against the Falcons' high-flying attack. With Ryan throwing for almost 5,000 yards and posting the fourth-best passer rating in NFL history, the Falcons piled up 540 points last season -- tied for the eighth-most of all-time.
That unit got off to somewhat of a slow start in last week's 23-17 victory at Chicago. While Ryan threw for 321 yards -- including an 88-yard touchdown by tight end Austin Hooper -- the Falcons' longest running play (other than a Ryan scramble) went for just seven yards.
"I wasn't panicking," Ryan said. "It's all about trying to get better week to week. That's the focus. The good teams that I've been on are the teams that continue to get better throughout the year. I think the experience of that first game is going to serve us well."
Defensively, the improvement the Packers hope to make is what the Falcons made during the second half of last season. With four rookies in the starting lineup, Atlanta yielded an average of 28.8 points in the first nine game of last season. That decreased to 21.0 over the last seven regular-season games as linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, safety Keanu Neal and cornerback Brian Poole gained experience.
After holding Seattle to 20 points in a divisional playoff game, Atlanta overwhelmed the Packers in the championship game. Aaron Rodgers, the 2011 and 2014 NFL MVP, threw for 287 yards -- although most of that production came after halftime.
The Atlanta defense is led by third-year outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who had 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles last year. Top cornerback Desmond Trufant, who missed the playoff run with a torn pectoral muscle, is back in the lineup.
"I think it's a really good defense," Rodgers said. "(They're) just older. Deion Jones is a big-time player. Keanu Neal is a fantastic player. Getting Trufant back from injury is great for them. Poole is now a second-year player. Those guys playing together in the same system for another year now, very talented group, very well-coached and very well-disciplined."
While the Packers earned an impressive victory against a fellow NFC powerhouse last week, the Falcons needed Brooks Reed's fourth-and-goal sack to hold off the rebuilding Bears. Falcons coach Dan Quinn, however, was pleased with the ending, perhaps in no small part because of how his team couldn't hold off the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
"I wasn't disappointed that we had to go all the way to the end," he said. "Those are kind of the finishes that as a coach you hope you can put your team into some of those spots and have some resiliency there at the end. It took all day, for sure."
The game will be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium -- the first regular-season game to be played in the retractable-roof stadium. The Packers are no strangers to opening a visiting team's stadium -- it lost 17-14 in the Vikings' first game at U.S. Bank Stadium last season. The 70,000 fans that will fill the stadium figure to make for a raucous environment, but Quinn isn't counting on them to carry his team to victory.
"Having the city and the connection that they have to the team, we enjoy that," he said. "Past that, when it gets kicked off, it still comes down to the guys in between the white lines. Our players know that. Once it gets kicked off, two really good teams who are totally going to battle for it."
The Packers are the only team with a significant injury concern. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga has been out for three weeks with an ankle injury and left tackle David Bakhtiari was limited with an injured hamstring.
Updated September 13, 2017