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Falcons vs. Packers Championship Round: Biggest storylines

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A list of the biggest storylines heading into Sunday. Staying balanced, somehow flustering Aaron Rodgers, and the cornerback group are featured.

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the final game inside the Georgia Dome. The Falcons continued their hot streak in convincing fashion last Saturday. To avenge a loss in a high pressure situation was crucial for them. Besides the first drive, they were in complete control against Seattle.

They need to remain composed against another battle tested opponent, who hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2008. Only New England is more experienced when it comes to playing football in January.

There aren’t many secrets about Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers is playing at an outrageous level, and elevating inconsistent players like Davante Adams and Jared Cook. Behind an elite offensive line, their offense is becoming unstoppable. Rodgers is playing so well that balance doesn’t matter to them. It showed in their first meeting last October. A shootout is inevitable between two MVP candidates. Will Rodgers continue carrying an average supporting cast on his back or does the more talented offense prevail?

Here are the major storylines going into Sunday.

Time of possession

Kyle Shanahan isn’t going to design a ball-control style game plan. The offense is simply too explosive. There are many major differences between Mike Smith and Dan Quinn, but one of the more noticeable differences is how this Falcons team is consistently aggressive and relentless. Shanahan will make adjustments to exploit an opposing defense’s biggest flaw. That doesn’t involve changing his overall philosophy. Staying attack-minded played a significant role behind the offense scoring 540 points, which put them next to the 2000 St. Louis Rams, as the seventh highest scoring offense in NFL history.

They put together one of their more impressive performances in the first meeting. Devonta Freeman was held to 35 yards on 11 carries. A foot injury and bracket coverage limited Julio Jones to three catches for 29 yards. Tevin Coleman didn’t play either. It was also Taylor Gabriel’s first game back from a concussion as well. For Matt Ryan to spread the ball around and outduel Rodgers was a huge confidence booster. Besides Jones’ nagging toe injury, every player is healthy and expected to have a more productive game.

Neither quarterback is expected to commit a turnover. It will take a tremendous defensive play or blunder from a skill position player. That makes time of possession more valuable in a game between two efficient offenses. Establishing the run is always crucial for Shanahan’s offense. It will make an already creaky Packers’ defense more susceptible to big plays. Keeping Rodgers off the field isn’t possible, when you are scoring at will. Forcing Green Bay to play from behind and giving the NFL sack leader more opportunities to create a big play is a more realistic approach.

Preventing Aaron Rodgers from scoring on every drive starts up front

There is no point using the words “stopping” or “containing” for this section. Rodgers is merely unstoppable, while the Falcons defense doesn’t have enough talent to derail him. This is going to be a prolonged struggle, especially against the best pass protecting offensive line in the league. David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga have developed into a stout tackle duo. T.J. Lang is a top-tier right guard, along with Lane Taylor, who is replacing star left guard Josh Sitton without any major drop off. The offensive line makes up for a subpar supporting cast. Rodgers is allowed ample time to survey the field and make any throw without much resistance.

If they are going to keep Rodgers from taking over like he did in the 2011 divisional playoff game, they need to create some semblance of a pass rush. That didn’t happen very often in their previous matchup. Despite producing three sacks, the front four rarely disrupted Rodgers. Adrian Clayborn was the lone difference maker by producing two sacks on third down. Losing him for the remainder of the playoffs is a devastating blow. Could Quinn decide to run more blitzes? According to Pat Thorman, Rodgers’ passer rating drops to 67.0 and has only completed 57 percent of his passes against the blitz in the playoffs.

The Ringer’s Danny Kelly wrote a great piece about stopping Rodgers. Blitzing is one of the few possibilities towards limiting him. Dallas found great success utilizing Orlando Scandrick and multiple safeties on blitzes. That doesn’t mean Quinn’s defense will replicate it, as the Falcons haven’t been very effective at blitzing this season. Running stunts is how the front four generates pressure in a creative manner. According to Samuel Gold, the Falcons ran 20 stunts on 39 passing plays against Seattle. It’s highly unlikely they find the same success against Green Bay’s unified offensive line. The pressure is on their lone consistent pass rushing threat to deliver an All-Pro caliber performance.

All eyes on Vic Beasley

Alongside Landon Collins, the NFL’s defensive breakout star comes from Atlanta. He is actually a pass rusher, which is something Falcon fans have wanted since 2012. Beasley has stuck to his strengths rather than attempt audacious pass rushing moves (such as his unbalanced spin move) and waste precious snaps. There are still noticeable flaws in his arsenal, but the young pass rusher has provided hope for a defense severely lacking in the pass-rushing department. Beasley needs to translate those flashes of excellence into consistent pressure.

Offensive lines are starting to key on him. He was largely neutralized against Seattle, as Jimmy Graham would chip him or they would double-team him on stunts. There should be plenty of opportunities against Green Bay’s pass heavy attack. With Clayborn injured, they can’t afford to use him as a spy. They don’t have any other true pass-rushing threats, especially with Bakhtiari blocking Dwight Freeney.

Keeping Rodgers inside the pocket will be another daunting challenge. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers completed seven of nine passes for 137 yards and a touchdown, when leaving the pocket against Dallas. He managed to complete eight of nine passes against the Giants’ vaunted defense as well. Beasley’s explosive style can leave space for opposing quarterbacks to step up in the pocket or move to the right side. It will be on him and every defensive lineman to play smart, yet stop the superstar quarterback from finding a rhythm for extended periods of time.

Cornerback trio under pressure

Based on the pass rush harassing Russell Wilson all game long, the cornerbacks didn’t receive much attention. They looked shaky against an inconsistent Seahawks’ offense. Robert Alford, Jalen Collins, and Brian Poole each allowed a big play over 30 yards. Doug Baldwin and Paul Richardson found success on deep corner and go routes. Wilson missed Baldwin on multiple big play opportunities as well. It could have easily been a more competitive game. According to Pro Football Focus, each cornerback allowed a passer rating over 118. Losing Desmond Trufant hasn’t dramatically hurt the defense. There were some warning signs last Saturday.

Collins and Poole may struggle against Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison. They haven’t fared well against speedy wide receivers in recent games. Alford could possibly shadow Davante Adams, if he manages to play on Sunday. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Quinn play each cornerback on their respective side rather than have them cover one specific wide receiver, considering Green Bay’s receiving core doesn’t possess any top-tier players without Jordy Nelson.

Rodgers is going to have time to weigh his options behind a stellar offensive line. The cornerbacks must be alert, especially during no-huddle situations. Don’t let the injuries at wide receiver fool you. Rodgers is more than capable of elevating unknown players. While Nelson is a notable loss, every receiving option is mostly getting perfectly thrown passes directed at them. Each cornerback has to be on their game against a likely depleted supporting cast.

Mohamed Sanu factor

Jones is going to play on Sunday, although they could manage his snaps. Green Bay has played bracket coverage on him in the past. Ha Ha Clinton Dix helped Ladarius Gunter cover Jones for the majority of the game last October. It was one of the first games, where Ryan trusted his entire supporting cast and played incredibly well. Gabriel should produce two big plays at minimum against a porous Packers’ secondary. When it comes to relying on another wide receiver, Sanu is the likely candidate to emerge in a probable shootout.

Sanu caught nine passes for 84 yards in their previous matchup. On the game-winning drive, the versatile wide receiver caught five passes for 50 yards and a touchdown. Green Bay’s overwhelmed cornerbacks and slow linebackers couldn’t contain him. Ryan found a clear weakness in Dom Capers’ defense and repeatedly exploited it. Sanu runs most of his routes in the slot. A potential matchup against Micah Hyde should bode well for him. Although Sanu has developed into their main possession receiver, they may need him do more. Look for him to play a meaningful role in the outcome.