Heed this warning, Falcons fans near and far.
Winter is coming.
And, this time, it’s cheesy.
This doesn’t mean you can celebrate Christmas in July, where we sit now, awaiting training camp, not the hoped-for playoff push the Falcons may embark on late in the season. However, begin to imagine a certain green-and-yellow tundra cracking back open in a big way, and that storied team being Atlanta’s most difficult challenge outside of their own locker room next season to get back to the Super Bowl.
The NFC is shaping up to be a bear, but consider the fun of schedule strength. It’s hard for teams to lock down top playoff seeding with first place schedules; and two conference heavyweights, Philadelphia and New Orleans, will have to face just that.
The Saints’ gamut is particularly treacherous, and could wear them down as the season goes on just as easily as it could rev them up. The Eagles also lost two-thirds of their offensive coaching staff and have to overcome the same pitfalls that have entrapped Super Bowl winners far more talented. If you think these two squads are the team’s biggest threats, look further north.
No, not Minnesota. While the Vikings look poised to field the league’s best defense next season, and have an offensive arsenal as foreboding as any in the NFL, it’s still a big question mark if that whole Kirk Cousins gamble is going to pay off. Also, keep in mind how they got throttled by Philly, and consider if rival NFL coaches noticed something about that defense that no one has yet.
A little to the right, aaaaand stop. Welcome to Titletown.
The Green Bay Packers are about to once again take the NFL by winter storm, with more-machine-than-man Aaron Rodgers poised to jolt back to his 2016 status as a potential MVP contender. It also helps that the Packers quietly had the best offseason of any team in the NFL.
The team’s coordinator changes could be strokes of genius; getting OC Joe Philbin back in the league to run the offense could give Rodgers the most comfort he’s had with play calling in quite some time (Philbin had the role on their Super Bowl team), and DC Mike Pettine, whose Wikipedia page made me very nervous to see he ran a top-league defense in 2009 with the Jets, and who became like every other football coach and didn’t find success in Cleveland as a head coach. Guys like that can absolutely rebound in a return to where they’re familiar.
The roster additions were also pretty striking. Adding Jimmy Graham to that offense could make Graham the fantasy tight end of 2018. Rodgers can get anyone the ball in the end zone who has a Packers jersey and is eligible to catch the ball, and even though he’s on the back half of his career, Graham is still a dangerous weapon down low. Pairing those two together could be nightmarish for other teams.
They also added three key pieces to that defense — DE Muhammad Wilkerson will reunite with Pettine, who he blossomed under with the Jets, and two first-round talent corners in Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. Two knocks on the Packers in their NFC Championship game was that they couldn’t stop Atlanta’s passing attack, and they lacked getting consistent pressure on Matt Ryan. Wilkerson could boost back up that front four (having he and Mike Daniels coming at you is a terrifying visage), and if Alexander and Jackson grow fast, combining them with vet Tramon Williams and Quinten Rollins is kinda freaky, too.
They’re also much healthier than last season, particularly on the offensive line. This team as it stands, at full strength, is a powerhouse in the making, especially if Rodgers is classic A-a-ron. And, they look to be an obvious Super Bowl contender playing on a third-place schedule. This is not a team anyone will want to see when it counts.
For the Falcons, though, there’s a bit more of a personal vendetta. After the team squeaked out a nail-biting win over them in October 2016 (yours truly was right in the end zone for the final Mohamed Sanu touchdown, and nearly levitated from the Earth), the team spanked them on the big stage in the farewell to the Georgia Dome, and spanked them on the big stage in the first game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That’s a lot of kicking around the league’s best quarterback. Though after he tormented the Birds for the better part of his young career; it’s not like he didn’t have it coming.
Rodgers and Ryan are buddies, which might fuel Rodgers even more to exact revenge on Atlanta, which is honestly something I never thought I’d type. The Falcons have had his number ever since Dan Quinn came to town, and historically, Quinn’s been quite good at limiting Rodgers, even when he’s in a groove. You can bet your bottom dollar that Rodgers is going to circle that Falcons trip to Green Bay in December. Don’t be too upset when that winds up being one of the team’s 2018 losses.
Also, don’t think that just because the Falcons have knocked around the Pack as of late that it means they can do so at will again. This is both a different Packers team, and a different Falcons team, than both were in 2016, and the former is stronger. They’re going to present new problems, and find new ways to get after Atlanta like they didn’t in the past. This will be a clash of the titans whet it gets going, with good chance to have a quick January rematch. Let’s hope that rematch isn’t north of the Georgia border.
The Packers finding success is as annoying as anything going nowadays, but get ready for plenty of Packer power this season. They’re going to be the talk of the NFL when it’s all said and done, and part of me wonders if they’ll be the last team standing in the NFC when it’s all said and done. For Atlanta to rectify that thing we all know needs rectifying, they might have to go past a revenge-hungry Rodgers to do so.
Few things are icier than that for the Falcons going forward.