Defense wins championships.
That’s the old adage. And it’s about to be turned on its head by either the Green Bay Packers or Atlanta Falcons.
The Packers finished 21st in points allowed. The Falcons finished 27th. And yet, one of them will win the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in Atlanta.
The victor will be playing in Super Bowl LI, and it figures to be a battle of brilliant quarterbacks — Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers — who decide this one.
Behind Ryan, the Falcons scored 71 more points than any other team in the NFL. Ryan’s 117.1 passer rating not only led the NFL, but was the fifth-best in NFL history. He threw for 4,944 yards with 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He topped 100 in passer rating in 12 of 16 regular-season games, then did it again against Seattle in the divisional round.
The Falcons enter the game on a five-game winning streak. Ryan has 14 touchdown passes and zero interceptions during the five-game streak.
“It’s always a cool thing to watch when you see a good player go to a new spot,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “You guys have for sure seen it (with Rodgers). You know what it looks like, and Matt did that with his own game.
“It started way back in February in terms of his intent for the offseason, the way he was going to set it off. He had some things in his own game that he wanted to improve upon and, honestly, it carried over all the way through OTAs, into training camp.”
Not to be outdone, Rodgers led the Packers to eight consecutive wins. Through the first quarter of the season, Rodgers ranked toward the bottom of the league in completion percentage (56.1) and yards per attempt (6.30). But he has been unstoppable as of late. During the winning streak, Rodgers has posted a 117.9 passer rating with 298.0 yards per game, 68.9 percent accuracy, 21 touchdowns and one interception. For the season, Rodgers threw for 4,428 yards with 40 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“I think he’s played incredible,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s important for our team to play our best football come Sunday. He’s in a great rhythm right now. Is he playing the best he ever has? He’s played at this level so often, but I think this is probably one of his best runs.”
Both teams will need huge efforts from their quarterbacks in what could turn into a shootout. They’ll be attacking what are at times poor defenses. Green Bay finished 31st in pass defense. Atlanta wasn’t much better at 26th. Both teams finished in the bottom fourth of the league on third down and in the red zone.
Ryan might have the better supporting cast, though. Premier receiver Julio Jones returned to practice on Friday from an ongoing toe injury, and Quinn said he will play without limitations. Jones, who caught 83 passes for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns, will gather the bulk of Green Bay’s defensive attention, but is surrounded by a flock of gifted weapons.
At receiver, Ryan can throw it to Mohamed Sanu (59 catches, 653 yards, four touchdowns) or Taylor Gabriel (35 catches, 579 yards, 16.5 average, six touchdowns). Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 85 receptions for 883 yards and five touchdowns. Three tight ends combined for 54 more receptions. A league-record 10 players caught at least two touchdown passes. Moreover, Freeman (1,079 yards, 4.8 average, 11 touchdowns) and Coleman (520 yards, 4.4 average, eight touchdowns) combined to power a running attack that finished fifth in the league.
“I think on offense we’ve done a great job of staying balanced,” Ryan said. “We’ve done a great job in the run game, the pass game, created a bunch of explosive plays which helps in terms of scoring some points, and we’ve done a great job taking care of the ball. I think the combination of those things has led to us playing well.”
Green Bay overcame the absence of Jordy Nelson (broken ribs) by scoring 38 points against the Giants and 34 points against the Cowboys — teams that finished in the top five in points allowed. Receivers Davante Adams (ankle) and Geronimo Allison (hamstring) are also ailing and McCarthy said Friday that all three players are game-day decisions. Running back Christine Michael (back) was added to the injury list as questionable on Saturday.
In addition, Rodgers, Nelson and kicker Mason Crosby were battling illnesses this week.
“Rest, fluids, all that stuff,” Rodgers told reporters Friday. “We’ll be OK. Jordy had it. Mason had it. I got it. We’ll deal with it.”
For Rodgers and Ryan, this is another chance at getting to the Super Bowl. Playing at home, the Falcons blew a 24-14 halftime lead and lost to San Francisco 28-24 in the 2012 NFC Championship Game. The Packers, who won the Super Bowl in 2010, blew a 16-0 halftime lead and lost at Seattle 28-22 in overtime in the 2014 NFC Championship Game.
“How do you not think about (getting to the Super Bowl)?” Rodgers said. “We’re 60 minutes away from being there again. It’s obviously on our minds.”