Editor's Note: all statistics are through Week 16.
Who they are: You could make an argument that the high point of Atlanta's season came in Week 2, when Michael Vick came to the Georgia Dome for the first time as the Eagles' starter. QB Matt Ryan was masterful, throwing four TDs, and the entire city went berserk after the Falcons closed out their old quarterback, 35-31.
Since then, it's been a down year. The Falcons have been sort of on the periphery of the NFL all season. What with all the stories in the NFC-the Packers' near-perfect season, the 49ers' incredible turnaround in the West, the Saints' unstoppable offense, the Lions ascent, etc., the Falcons have sort of quietly trudged to a 10-6 record. It's not that they've been bad, far from it; they possess the league's tenth-ranked offense by yardage, score 23.8 points per game (11th in the league) and their twelfth-ranked defense gives up a respectable 21.7 points per game, 16th in the NFL.
Take a closer look at their opponents, though. They've beaten only one playoff team, the Detroit Lions. By contrast, they've lost to the Saints twice, the Packers once and the Houston Texans when they were on their third-string QB. Put another way, the teams they've beaten—including such bottom-feeders as Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis and Carolina (twice)—averaged just 5.78 wins through Week 15. The teams they've lost to? They average 9.83 wins. However you spin the data, it's clear that this year's Falcons have generally made hay against the bad teams but folded against their best opponents.
Game-Breaker: This was sort of a tough player to identify. The Falcons have a very rock-steady, methodical offense, with several players that are about equally important to it. This could’ve been Roddy White, Michael Turner or Tony Gonzalez, but none of them really has that explosive, game-defining quality I was looking for. In the end I went with rookie WR Julio Jones. Drafted sixth overall after the Falcons traded Cleveland a king’s ransom for their spot, Jones has become the designated big-play man in Atlanta’s offense.
Jones has 50 catches for 883 yards and six TDs as Atlanta’s No. 2 receiver. As you’d expect with any rookie WR, his talent has come in fits and starts: he missed three games due to injury and has had four games (Weeks 2, 5, 10 and 12) where he caught a combined five passes for 54 yards. However, Jones has also posted five 100-yard games, including two in the last three weeks. He serves as Atlanta’s primary deep threat, and has caught six passes for 40 yards or longer, including 50-, 75- and 80-yard TDs. Overall, he has found the end zone six times. The Packers held him to one catch for 16 yards and one reverse for 17, but feeding the ball to Jones would be a good way for the Falcons to keep pace in any high-scoring playoff rematch.
Weakest Link: This is a no-brainer. In the Packers’ playoff victory in the Georgia Dome last January, Aaron Rodgers dominated a Falcons secondary containing CBs Brent Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Chris Owens, and safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. Rodgers threw for 366 yards and three TDs on 31-of-36 passing, ran for another score and basically blew the doors off in a 48-21 victory. One year later, the Falcons’ only addition of note has been ex-Colt Kelvin Hayden for depth; they neither signed a starter in the secondary in free agency nor attempted to draft one. As a consequence, while their pass defense is a decent 19th (235.1 yards/game) and they’ve picked off 13 passes, the Falcons have allowed 23 TDs through the air (t-18th). While the pass-rush of DEs John Abraham and ex-Viking Ray Edwards can cover up some holes in the secondary, there’s no real barrier to Rodgers running wild again in any potential playoff remeet.
Why you should fear them: The Falcons and the Packers genuinely don’t like each other, and with good reason. The Packers ruined the Falcons’ 13-3 season last year in what Falcons fans call “The Debacle in the Dome” before returning to their house in Week 5 this year and beating them again in an distinctly chippy game. It's a rock-solid guarantee that the Packers would get the best the Falcons have to offer in a playoff game.
Matt Ryan won his only appearance at Lambeau Field in 2008, and the Falcons have the horses to hang with Rodgers and company on offense. Ground-and-pound back Michael Turner would be perfect for a cold-weather game, and White and Gonzalez have combined for 165 receptions this season. The Falcons’ offense is built to control the clock (32:27/game, third in the NFL) and keep quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers off the field. Combine that with a Packers defense that struggles to sack the QB (one in the last three games) and stop the run, and it could be a long day at Lambeau Field.
Why they’d be easy prey: That last paragraph aside, the Falcons are probably the weakest team in the NFC playoffs. White has had his usual near-100-catch season, Matt Ryan is solid and they have their share of playmakers, but the Falcons just don’t have the standout passing game of the Packers, Saints or Lions or the stifling defense of the Niners. There’s really no one thing that they do better than anyone else, and their 1-4 record against teams with 10+ wins is difficult to get excited over.
In their Week 5 meeting, the Packers survived some of the most adverse circumstances possible: down 14 points, on the road, with the other team and its fans both hyped up to high heaven in a revenge game. The Packers chipped away at that lead bit on offense, the defense didn’t allow another score, and Green Bay inexorably took the lead and then the victory, 25-14. It’s hard to picture Atlanta doing any better on Green Bay’s turf.