The Green Bay Packers have already exceeded many fans’ expectations by beating the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys (in a game I genuinely thought they would lose) in the playoffs. Rather than my preferred matchup against my least favorite team in the NFL, the Packers drew the Atlanta Falcons, in the NFC Championship game. I think the media and Vegas (who have the Falcons as 4-point favorites) are underestimating Green Bay, who just beat arguably a better team. Yes, Atlanta won in the teams’ regular season matchup, but Green Bay was without its top three running backs (Eddie Lacy, James Starks, Ty Montgomery), its top three cornerbacks (Quinten Rollins, Sam Shields, Damarious Randall), its #3 receiver (Randall Cobb), the tight end who bailed them out of the Dallas game (Jared Cook), and its best defensive player (Clay Matthews). After all that, Atlanta still only managed to beat the Packers by a point. Most of those players (except Lacy, Starks, and Shields) will be back, though #1 wideout Jordy Nelson is still inactive. Now, Atlanta’s much-maligned defense has gotten better since then, but it is still only 25th in total defense, 28th against the pass, 17th against the run, and 27th in points allowed per game. Considering what Green Bay’s offense just did to the 2nd and 5th-ranked scoring defenses, that would worry the living shit out of me if I was a Falcons fan.
Rather than do a straight-up, offense-versus-defense-versus special teams preview of this game, I thought I’d take a slightly different tack. The more I analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this Packers team, I find a startling amount of similarities between it and the 2011 squad, which was the last to win a Super Bowl. In fact, the last time these two teams faced each other in the playoffs was that year, with the Packers claiming a 48-21 win that had me screaming and jumping up and down by halftime. I still vividly remember Tramon Williams’s pick-six of Matt Ryan to close the first half.
Aaron Rodgers is making his receivers better. Duh, you say. But that hasn’t really been true the past few years, with Nelson out last year and receivers struggling to get open in other years. On the 2010-11 team, every receiver seemed like a weapon. Greg Jennings was the big name, but it seemed like whoever Rodgers threw the ball to -Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver, Jermichael Finley- they always seemed like a threat to make the catch. While this receiving corps is not as deep as that one, Nelson played the Greg Jennings role down the stretch for Green Bay. Davante Adams and Randall Cobb have been much more consistent as pass catchers lately, and especially in the playoffs. Cook has been playing above his normal standard since coming back from injury as well. These improvements have coincided with Rodgers rediscovering his vintage form.
Green Bay’s running game is suspect, but capable of catching teams off guard. In 2011, it was James Starks that was sneaky good. Having inherited the starting RB job from Brandon Jackson, Starks came out of nowhere to rush for 123 yards and a 5.3 per-carry average in the wild-card game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Defenses keyed in on him after that, but he was still effective in the Super Bowl, rushing for 52 yards on 11 carries (4.7 avg). This year, while injuries have taken away proven talents like Lacy that have carried the team in recent years, Ty Montgomery has stepped up and defenses may not want to ignore him. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry in an admittedly small sample size that was largely buoyed by his stupid-good stat line against the Chicago Bears (16 carries, 162 yards, 10.1 avg and 2 TDs). But he has shown that he can do more with less carries, averaging more than 5 yards per carry in 5 games this season. While he is hardly a workhorse back, if he is used sparingly as a change-of-pace option that allows Rodgers to use play-action effectively, he could make life that much harder for the Falcons’ D.
The Packers’ defense is not known as a world-beater, but is opportunistic and stiffens at the right times. The 2011 team was better statistically, but both defenses showed an ability to make crucial plays when needed. Tramon Williams had two of those key plays, with the aforementioned pick against the Falcons that broke that game open. He also intercepted a Michael Vick pass in the end zone that sealed the wild-card game win against the Philadelphia Eagles. The D also got two drive-killing interceptions in the Super Bowl (one of which was a pick-six) that helped them open an early lead from which the Pittsburgh Steelers never recovered. This year, the defense has returned to that form late in the season. In the playoffs, they largely bottled up both the Giants (not as big an accomplishment) and Cowboys (much bigger) until a late Cowboys surge made the divisional playoff game closer. They tightened up at a crucial time in the Cowboys game too, limiting them to a field goal on their final drive to set up Mason Crosby’s game-winner. While the Falcons’ explosive offense will certainly get their points, I have no reason to believe the D won’t do just enough to win the game.
The Packers were written off early on. 2016-17 is probably a more extreme case of this than 2011 was, as the Packers were left for dead after falling to 4-6 on the season before ripping off six straight wins to close the regular season. But 2011 featured some inexplicable losses, such as two straight in overtime to bad Redskins and Dolphins teams (that Packers-Redskins tilt was actually the first NFL game I ever attended). I don’t think many fans (myself included) thought they looked much like a Super Bowl team at the end of the regular season, finishing 10-6 and earning a six-seed in the playoff, just like this year’s team. They were also underdogs in their first two playoff games, but fans and the media started to recognize them as a dangerous team once they made it to the conference championship game. I think a similar turnaround in opinion happened after Green Bay demolished the Giants in the wild-card game this year. They became the team nobody wants to face. Even despite that, they continue to be portrayed as underdogs, showing that some haven’t quite caught on yet.
Now, do I think these similarities are some sort of cosmic sign that the team will beat the Falcons and win the Super Bowl? No. The team is just following a formula that has worked for them in the past. No doubt, it’s a risky formula. An unexpected defensive breakdown could doom them in less time than it takes for Donald Trump to send an undignified tweet. But it does mean that they should be taken more seriously than they have been, and even if their opponents look like better teams on paper, they are capable of winning it all. Prediction: Packers 35, Falcons 32