Packers Back in Georgia Dome Against Falcons

The Falcons hardly have been so formidable, and their 2-2 start puts them third in what might be the NFL’s best division, the NFC South. Atlanta lost only three games in 2010, so if Mr. Rodgers and company continue lighting it up, the Falcons could find themselves in a huge hole.

“It’s fun playing teams like this on Sunday night. The atmosphere, we know what that’s going to be like,” Rodgers said. “We beat them last year pretty good down there. They’re upset about that, I’m sure. It’s going to be a tough game for us.”

Rodgers’ counterpart with the Falcons, Matt Ryan, hasn’t forgotten that 48-21 pasting.

“It takes a little while to get over, but you have to move past it,” Ryan said. “You have to learn from it. Not only myself — I know I used it as motivation throughout the offseason . … That’s part of playing in this league is you’re going to make some mistakes and you’re going to make some plays that don’t go the way you want. It’s how you respond to those type of things, and I think I’ve had the right response.”

Green Bay certainly has responded in style after its surge from wild card to champion.

“We think this is going to be a hot game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re excited to go down there and play on the big national stage. We’re fully aware probably of how they feel about us. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The other unbeaten team, Detroit, hosts Chicago on Monday night.

Also Sunday, it’s Tampa Bay at San Francisco, the New York Jets at New England, Oakland at Houston, San Diego at Denver, Philadelphia at Buffalo, Tennessee at Pittsburgh, New Orleans at Carolina, Seattle at the New York Giants, Cincinnati at Jacksonville, Arizona at Minnesota, and Kansas City at Indianapolis.

Off this week are Baltimore (3-1), Cleveland (2-2), Dallas (2-2), Miami (0-4), St. Louis (0-4), and Washington (3-1).


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Packers Oust the Falcons

Aaron Rodgers, on a dead-even wavelength with his receivers, was zeroed in, with 31 completions on 36 throws, as Green Bay smoked the Atlanta Falcons, 48-21, to earn a spot in the N.F.C. championship game.

With 3 touchdowns, 366 passing yards and no interceptions, Rodgers one-upped his Falcons counterpart Matt Ryan, a fraternity brother in the wing of up-and-coming quarterbacks, despite continually being handed unfavorable field position. Rodgers’s teammates ran unfettered patterns around and through the Atlanta secondary, easing his task.

“He was excellent today,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said. “He was on fire. Aaron was able to run the offense at a very high level.”

He did so by working the middle of the field, thus drawing in the linebackers and defensive backs, then striking to the outside.

“It was a special night,” Rodgers said, noting that the Packers did not have to dress a punter, seeing how one was not needed. “Mike got in a rhythm with the calls.”

The Packers’ defense, dented by an early score, stiffened as Ryan’s unit did not score again until the fourth quarter, by which time throngs of Falcons fans had taken to the area’s slick streets for the commute home. The body blows in between were two interceptions by Tramon Williams, one converted into a touchdown at a vital moment.

Green Bay (12-6) has entered the past four weekends in a win-or-be-done predicament. With one more reprieve, against the or on Jan. 23, the Packers would fill one sideline at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.

Saturday’s game bore little resemblance to Atlanta’s 20-17 win against Green Bay at the Georgia Dome on a last-minute field goal in Week 12 of the regular season, other than that Green Bay’s offense again showed worse run-versus-pass balance than a vertigo-stricken tightrope walker.

The rookie James Starks, who bubbled up from anonymity for 123 rushing yards against the a week earlier, gave Green Bay’s ground game somewhat of a pulse with 66 yards. Mostly, though, it was Rodgers and his free-running, sure-handed receivers who tormented the Falcons (13-4).

Thousands of cheeseheads — for Packers followers on the road, the faux wedge is the chapeau of choice — crashed a Georgia Dome crowd associated dietarily with grits, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. The soft ticket market, with seats available from licensed brokers for under $100, was attributed to snow and ice that paralyzed a metropolitan area ill-equipped to cope with winter weather and a limited franchise playoff legacy that preconditions many Atlanta fans to misfortune in the postseason.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, in fact, added direct flights out of Green Bay for Packers fans.

In a historical context, the matchup was bluebloods versus plebeians. Twelve league championships for Green Bay, none for the Falcons. Twenty Hall of Fame players whose careers are associated with the Packers, zero with the Falcons, though it is safe to commission a bust for former Atlanta cornerback .

The Packers claim a 21st Hall of Famer, a coach whose epic narrative has made the stage show “Lombardi” a Broadway hit.

On Saturday, the big hits at the outset belonged to the Falcons. They interrupted a dangerous catch-and-run by Greg Jennings when linebacker Stephen Nicholas slapped the ball loose and his teammate Brent Grimes fetched the fumble just inside Packers territory.

Michael Turner subsequently ran 12 yards for the initial score, one play after Falcons Coach Mike Smith, who routinely eschews field goals on fourth-and-short in the red zone, successfully punched up a first-down run.

The Packers took their time to pull even, Rodgers rounding off a 13-snap march covering nearly eight minutes with a 6-yard flip to Jordy Nelson.

The drive covered 81 yards, setting a pattern of cross-country travel. The Packers traversed 92, 80 and 80 yards for their next three scores.

The 7-7 tie lasted all of 14 seconds. Atlanta’s Eric Weems ran 102 yards with the kickoff, staring at nothing but green space for the last two-thirds of his runback.

Green Bay governed from then on, their touchdowns ranging from the commonplace (John Kuhn’s 1-yard run) to breathtaking (James Jones’s 20-yard reception with limbs fully extended).

Williams’s first interception foiled a Falcons threat. When receiver Michael Jenkins stumbled, he ran down Ryan’s floater in the end zone.

Then, with Ryan pressing to squeeze in a Falcons field goal before halftime, he threw a sideline pass intended to halt the clock. Williams, lying in wait, cut in front of Roddy White. Seventy yards later, Williams reached the end zone as time expired, and the Packers were ahead by 28-14.

“I recognized the formation,” Williams said, suspecting Ryan would aim for the edge. “I played outside leverage, with the receiver just outside of me. Once he made the out cut, I broke inside of him.”

Before Atlanta’s offense could spring into action in the second half, Rodgers scrambled 7 yards for a touchdown, and the spread was a yawning 21 points.

After Rodgers’s 7-yard scoring toss to Kuhn, the Packers grew satisfied with field goals, connecting on two.

“He likes to play in domes,” McCarthy said of Rodgers. “You can see why.”

And what is it with Rodgers and roofs?

“The weather is in perfect condition,” he said. “I also get to wear my favorite shoes, so my feet don’t hurt.”

Barefoot would have sufficed against such a compliant defense, though Rodgers must deal with the great outdoors next weekend.

Ryan was decent but — unlike Rodgers, who distributed passes to eight players — tended to lock into his confidant, White.

“It was just not a very good decision on my part,” Ryan said of the critical pick-six. “In that situation, knowing we are in field-goal range, I needed to throw the ball away.”

Thus the Falcons became only the third top seed in the N.F.C. over the past two decades who were unable to make hay out of home-field advantage

“Just because you have home field doesn’t mean you can just walk through the playoffs,” Smith said. “It’s a totally different season once the playoffs start, so hopefully we can learn from that.”

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RB Starks Adds Wrinkle as Falcons Prep for Packers

, Wis. (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons were just as surprised as most of the fans sitting at home. Until this week, they’d never heard of Green Bay Packers running back James Starks, either.

Before Sunday, Starks was a sixth-round pick out of Buffalo who had struggled to get on the field because of injuries and inconsistent practice habits. Then he rushed for 123 yards in Green Bay’s 21-16 playoff victory at Philadelphia.

“He came out of nowhere,” Falcons middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “I’d never heard of Starks. I’d never seen him on film until the past two weeks. But he’s a talented back.”

And after smothering the Packers’ running game when the two teams played back in November, the Falcons certainly don’t plan to allow some rookie to have a big performance in Saturday’s playoff game at the Georgia Dome.

“When you can run the ball and pass the ball, that makes you that much more dangerous,” Lofton said. “They tried to run the ball against us the first time, and we shut it down. So that’s what we’re looking to do again.”

Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Starks has earned a bigger role in the offense.

“He’ll have opportunities in Atlanta,” McCarthy said. “How many, the game will dictate that. He has earned that opportunity based off his performance this past week.”

Starks says he’s ready.

“If you love this game, you love having the ball in your hands,” Starks said. “I would love to have that but I’m grateful for whatever I can get. I’ll take whatever I’m offered.”

But even the Packers concede that Starks’ breakout performance doesn’t necessarily mean they have solved their season-long running game problems.

“I think if we’re being honest, last week was a little bit of an anomaly, if you’re comparing it to the last seven or eight weeks,” Aaron Rodgers said. “Often my own rushing stats have bumped up the average. Our feature back has been averaging in the threes, usually, and we might end up with 33 carries for 120 yards. It was just a matter of the stuff we were calling was working. We blocked better and James was decisive.”

After losing running back Ryan Grant to an ankle injury in Week 1, the Packers spent most of this season struggling to run the ball and leaned heavily on Rodgers and his receivers.

The Packers’ running game hit a low point in their Nov. 28 loss at Atlanta. In addition to throwing for 344 yards, Rodgers was the Packers’ leading rusher with 51 yards. Running back Brandon Jackson — a second-round pick in 2007 who was expected to carry the load after Grant’s injury — chipped in a mere 26 yards rushing in that game.

And while Rodgers is proud of his underrated athletic ability, it would be just fine with him if he never led the Packers in rushing again.

Could Starks be the difference for the Packers this time around?

“Well, we’ll see about that,” Rodgers said. “Last time, I was the leading rusher. Hopefully that’s not the case again. But you’ve got to give credit to James and the way he prepared last week. He was the hot guy and he got the ball. Every week, you never know who’s going to get the majority of the carries. I’m just hopeful it’s not going to be me this week.”

Even if Starks can’t duplicate last week’s performance, his potential to do so could be enough to keep the Falcons’ defense from loading up to stop Rodgers and set up the Packers’ play-action passing game.

“It’s huge,” Falcons safety William Moore said. “Now they’re good all around. Me, personally, I don’t go off one game. We’ll continue to do our game plan and just do what we’ve been executing. But he’s a great rookie. He carried the load the last game. I’m sure he’s going to show up this game with the momentum he had last game.”

Starks missed his entire senior season at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury, then began this season on the physically unable to perform list because of a hamstring injury. He had a strong debut, rushing for 73 yards in a win over San Francisco Dec. 5, but didn’t do much the following week and sat out back-to-back games after coaches became concerned with his practice habits.

Rodgers said Starks got the message.

“I don’t know if you’re going to get 123 yards every week out of him. I don’t even know if he’s going to be the hot back this week,” Rodgers said. “But we expect him to prepare to play well and practice the way he expects to play. That’s the reason he got the opportunity, because his practice habits have improved. Coach says it, I’ve said it before, you need to show us in practice what you can do in order for us to have confidence you can do it in a game. That goes for James and any other player on our offense.”

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