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Falcons vs. Packers: Top Matchups to Watch

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It begins and ends with slowing down Aaron Rodgers.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Michael Aprile is the editor-in-chief of fellow Falcons site Rise Up Reader, where you can find more Falcons coverage. Michael is a cohost of the new Falcoholic game-recap podcast that airs weekly.

When the Packers and Falcons take the field Sunday night, last year's top two teams in the NFC will clash once again on a national stage. Just eight months ago, the Falcons embarrassed the Packers in front of the whole world in a 44-21 party to send the Georgia Dome off in style. That game marked the second time in a single season that the Falcons took down Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay.

As we prepare for the next battle in this war for the NFC crown, consider one thing:

The north remembers.

Rodgers and the Packers will be highly motivated to avoid losing three in a row in the Dirty South, though the Falcons will be equally as motivated to open the breath-taking Mercedes Benz Stadium with a resounding victory.

The Packers held off a feisty Seahawks team in Week 1 and earned a tough 17-9 win, doing so in an unusual, defensive way. That defense held Russel Wilson to just 158 passing yards and no touchdowns, often overpowering Seattle’s offensive line and shutting down the run game. It’s hard to say this early whether the Packers’ defense is that much better, or if the Seahawks’ offensive line is really that bad.

The Falcons looked a little shaky in their Week 1 win over the Bears, with concerns about Wes Schweitzer and Steve Sarkisian dominating the airwaves after the game. The Falcons’ defense played well for the most part, but if it weren’t for a few dropped passes and Brooks Reed’s heroics, this team could very easily be 0-1 and the hangover talk would be unbearably loud.

What better way to silence the doubters than to beat an annual MVP candidate on primetime television? If the Falcons want to do just that, they’ll need to start by winning the following matchups.

Aaron Rodgers vs. Falcons’ pass rush

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have found ways to get to Aaron Rodgers as of late.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Falcons’ pass rushers did a great job of containing Aaron Rodgers. Against a mobile QB like Rodgers, Atlanta changed some things up from their typical defensive game plan, and it worked tremendously in their favor. Instead of asking Vic Beasley to bend the edge with his freakish speed, they asked him to spy Rodgers to prevent him from escaping when the pocket collapsed.

Dan Quinn also dialed up some cornerback blitzes using Brian Poole, who crushed Rodgers on more than one occasion. Poole did just that last week in Chicago on a blitz and recorded a sack of Mike Glennon. Corner blitzes have been an effective mechanism, so don’t expect the Falcons to go away from it.

What’s really interesting about this matchup is that the Falcons have new personnel that should make their defense deadlier and less predictable against Green Bay. Quinn could mix it up and let someone like De’Vondre Campbell or Takk McKinley spy Rodgers, freeing up Beasley to burn the edge or unexpectedly drop into coverage.

With such diverse playmakers on the field at once, Rodgers and the Packers will have a tough time figuring out where the pressure will come from. But the Falcons will need to be quick in getting their rotation in, as Rodgers is notorious at catching defenses sleeping. He did just that against the stout Seahawks’ defense last week, throwing a 32-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson on a free play.

Julio Jones vs. Packers' secondary

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones saved his best for last against the Packers last season.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s tell it like it is—Julio Jones lining up against almost any corner in the league is going to be a mismatch in the Falcons’ favor. In last season’s NFC Championship, Green Bay could’ve lined up their entire defense against Jones and it simply wouldn’t have mattered.

As unstoppable as Jones can often be, he does have games where he’s not a focal point and becomes more of a decoy, which opens up one-on-one coverage for Atlanta’s other playmakers. If the Falcons want to turn this one into another blowout, they’ll need all the firepower they can get. As of now, My top sportsbook has the Falcons as slight (4/5) favorites.

Don’t expect the Packers to be run out of the building like they were back in January. They’ll enter the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium much healthier than they were in the last matchup, particularly at cornerback, and the Falcons won’t have Ladarius Gunter to pick on all game—they’ll have to wait until Week 9 to do that (with Gunter now on the Panthers).

The Packers will likely try to slow down Jones with some combination of Damarious Randall, Davon House, Quentin Rollins, and Kevin King. Leaving him one-on-one with any of those guys is asking for a disaster, so expect plenty of over-the-top help from safeties HaHa Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett.

With so much attention on one playmaker, don’t be surprised if Taylor Gabriel, Mohamed Sanu, and Austin Hooper all have big days. That’s one of the traits that makes Jones so special—his presence on the field alone makes his teammates better.

Martellus Bennett vs. Falcons’ coverage

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons
Containing Martellus Bennett should be a focal point for the Falcons.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have been plagued by opposing tight ends for as long football has been around. Visions of Cameron Brate, Coby Fleener, and Travis Kelce dancing down the field still linger from last season.

Always take Week 1 with a large grain of salt, but the Falcons held up pretty well against the Bears’ tight ends, all things considered. Atlanta held the combination of Zach Miller and Dion Sims to 6 catches, 70 yards, and 0 touchdowns. Miller and Sims are one of the better tight end duos in the league, though having Mike Glennon as their quarterback certainly played a part in their lack of production.

Martellus Bennett is one of the top tight ends in the NFL. The Falcons got to see him as a Patriot in the Super Bowl where Bennett caught 5 passes for 62 yards. As a Packer he’ll be just as dangerous, but the Falcons are equipped to at least limit the damage.

We’ll know more as the season progresses, but the Falcons have the personnel in place to shut down opposing tight ends. Keanu Neal, De’Vondre Campbell, Duke Riley, and Deion Jones can all hold their own in one-on-one coverage, and they have the athleticism to thrive in zone. This is a defense that steadily improved as 2016 went on, but they’re poised to put it all together with another year in Quinn’s scheme.

If the Falcons can keep Bennett under control—particularly on third downs—it’ll go a long way towards helping Atlanta secure a win in the opening game at the new stadium. The Falcons allowed 5/11 (45%) of third-down attempts to be converted last week against the Bears, a bit higher than they would’ve liked.

Which matchups are you looking forward to the most?