Packers hit the road for NFC title rematch

Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan

ATLANTA, GA – JANUARY 22: Matt Ryan #2 of the Atlanta Falcons speaks to Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers after the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Safety Morgan Burnett and other members of the Packers secondary had nearly finished answering questions in the team locker room on their solid performance in a season-opening victory over Seattle Sunday, when the discussion went south. 

As in Atlanta. 

“Whole different team we’re playing this week,” safety Ha Ha Clinton said.   Added Burnett, “I’m just proud of our team today. . .  we’ve been working together so long, so hard, for this season, dating all the way back to the spring.  So we’re prepared.” 

Former Bears head coach and ESPN analyst Mike Ditka said the Packers have a brutal start to their 2017 season. 

“The Packers have a tough start with Seattle and then at Atlanta,” Ditka said.  “Well, if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.  You have to take care of business on your home field, and then prove it on the road.  I’m sure they’re looking for a different performance and outcome against the Falcons. 

“But remember this:  the past is the past.  It’s  a new season and both teams have changed personnel.  From a Packers viewpoint, they have an opportunity to learn from that last one.” 

It was not pretty nine months ago, when Green Bay was literally blown off the field in the NFC Championship Game, 44-21. 

It was 24-0 at intermission, with quarterback Matt Ryan rarely under pressure and able to shred an injury-depleted secondary for four touchdowns and ran 14-yards for another. 

A shoot-out is expected in the gleaming $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but the Green Bay defense will definitely be playing with a collective chip on its shoulder after the title game debacle. 

“It’s a team game, and the Packers were bad in all three phases,” Ditka said.  “But that was last year.  They shored their defense up, but they also have to score some points.” 

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense was held scoreless in the first half of the 2016 NFC title game and the Seattle contest last week..  The Falcons struggled and barely edged the Bears in Chicago, thanks to a goal-line stand in the final seconds of a lackluster 23-17 victory. 

Head coach Dan Quinn was concerned with his offensive line play and tackling going into the home opener against Green Bay, and potentially the first open-air game in Atlanta since 1991—if the retractable roof and the weather cooperate. 

Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy couldn’t have been more pleased with his team’s defensive performance, which limited quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seahawks to three field goals. 

“This really started with our defense,” McCarthy said.  “You hold an offense to nine points in today’s NFL—that speaks volumes.” 

Speaking of volume, the noise level will be at ear-splitting levels Sunday night as the Falcons debut in their new stadium.  Rodgers and the offense will aim to silence the crowd and score early and often to avoid falling behind. 

The team’s “Nitro” defense—which features six defensive backs and Burnett playing at inside linebacker—will be tested by Falcons superstar Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and versatile running back Devonta Freeman. 

“The Falcons have a lot of weapons and Ryan is the (league) MVP,” Ditka said.  “On the other side, you have Aaron Rodgers and he has a lot of weapons and spreads the ball around.  If either quarterback has time to sit back and scan the field, they’ll pick you apart.  We’ll see which defense can apply the pressure and make some plays.” 

Ditka’s final words:  “Forget about what happened in the NFC Championship to Green Bay or in the Super Bowl to Atlanta.  It’s 2017, a new season.  Yesterday is history, the future is tomorrow.  Today is the present.  It should be a great football game to watch Sunday night.” 

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Packers 30, Falcons 27

What a difference seven months makes for the Green Bay defense.  It’s all about match-ups, and the Packers’ “Nitro” package (six DBs with Morgan Burnett at ILB) affords a much better chance to compete against one of the NFL’s best offenses featuring Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman.  Rodgers and Green Bay offense must start faster in tough road environment in another early season NFC showdown—and avoid playing catch-up. 

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