Let’s get this out of the way up front: the Packers are a better team than the Falcons. Vegas think so by making the Falcons a two-point favorite, which means that the Packers would be a slight favorite on a neutral field. Football Outsiders puts the Packers ahead of the Falcons on both offense and defense. Sagarin would make the Pack a five-point favorite on a neutral field, as would SRS. Yours truly’s Lazy Ass Ranking System (hereinafter “LARS”) shows an even wider gap, as the Packers are +.6 in yards per play margin, while the Falcons are –.6.
So why bother on Saturday night? Here’s how the Falcons win:
1. Turnovers – the Falcons are slightly better at protecting the ball. (The teams are a push in terms of forcing turnovers.) If Atlanta wins, I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that they will end the night with a positive turnover margin. With homefield advantage and a loud Dome, John Abraham should be close to unblockable, which means that Aaron Rodgers is going to make throws under pressure. Also, because they have had two weeks to prepare, Brian VanGorder should be able to throw a blitz or two at Rodgers that he hasn’t seen before (not unlike the home game against New Orleans, in which the Falcons turned in an excellent defensive performance).
2. An advantage in close games – my regular readers will know that I abhor explanations that come down to clutchiness, but run with me here. The Falcons are 7-2 in one-score games this year; they are 17-8 in such games during the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan era. The Falcons’ conservative offensive style tends to lead to close game and then for whatever reason, the Falcons are very good in such games. None of us would feel bad about the prospect of Ryan having the ball with the team down three and three minutes to go. In contrast, the Packers are 9-17 in one score games during the Mike McCarthy/Aaron Rodgers era. McCarthy is 18-21 in such games overall, which means that either Brett Favre was more reliable than Rodgers in close and late situations. I’d prefer to believe that the Packers struggle in close games because of McCarthy because I like Rodgers. Moreover, McCarthy does seem to struggle in game management tasks. His use of timeouts isn’t good (such as not using one when the Eagles were lining up for a field goal at the end of the first half last week) and if either of the the games in Philly is any indication, he tightens up with a lead. That said, to the extent that we can determine anything from the small sample size, Rodgers is a problem in close games. I don’t really buy this explanation because it’s the kind of claim I’d expect on sports radio, but I’m looking for reasons to be optimistic when I’m attacking a liter at Der Biergarten before the game. (Speaking of which, how does one insult someone from Wisconsin in a biting, but non-offensive way? I tend to do these things when drinking, but I’m at a bit of a loss here. "Fat Fuck!” only goes so far. “You live in an ice box” doesn’t exactly work this week. “Thanks for sticking humanity with Brett Favre?” “Paul Hornung was a drunk?”)
3. A week off – With the exception of Mike Mularkey, I like the Falcons coaches. I like the idea that they have had two weeks to prepare this team. And speaking of Mularkey, he has a reputation of liking trick plays. Wouldn’t this be a good game to use one or two?
4. Special teams – this is where the Falcons have a major advantage. According to weighted DVOA, the Falcons have the best special teams in the NFL, whereas the Packers are 17th. The Falcons are outstanding on both kickoffs and kickoff returns; the Packers are terrible. If the Falcons are starting drives on the 35 and the Packers are starting on their own 20, then that will make up for a significant yardage disparity. (Note: this advantage will matter more in a shootout than in a 21-14 game.)
Overall, I’d say that the game is a coin flip. Green Bay is better at the two basic elements of football: moving the ball and stopping the other team from doing so. Atlanta is better at all of the garnishments. This is a game between a very good piece of New York Strip unadorned on a plate and a really good hamburger with a bevy of great toppings and the best onion rings in the NFL. So let’s eat.