When: 8:30 p.m ET, Monday. Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay. TV: ESPN.
The Packers (9-3) have the No. 1 seed in the NFC in their sights, while the Falcons (5-7) somehow have the NFC South title still within reach.
ESPN NFL Nation Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky preview the matchup:
Demovsky: This game features a couple of the best receiver duos in the game -- Julio Jones and Roddy White for the Falcons (assuming White plays), Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson for the Packers. What makes the Jones-White combo so effective?
McClure: I agree that this duo can have a tremendous impact on any game, but it's not the same tandem we saw back in 2012 when Jones and White combined for 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns. White, who turned 33 last month, knows his body isn't the same as it used to be. He has missed two games this season due to the injury, although he vowed to be healthy down the stretch despite tweaking his left ankle two games ago. Jones, who just surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the season and leads the NFC with 1,169 yards, is capable of being a one-man wrecking crew, as he proved against humbled Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. Yet the Falcons don't have to rely solely on Jones, when third receiver Harry Douglas puts up 100-yard games, and when Devin Hester poses a threat as yet another target for Matt Ryan. I still believe the Falcons are at their best when they're playing up-tempo with those four receivers on the field, which creates significant mismatches for opposing defenses.
We just talked about how dynamic Jones can be at receiver. I'd like to know what you think the Packers will do in defending him Monday night. It looks like when they tried to go one-on-one with Sam Shields against Calvin Johnson in Week 3, Johnson took advantage immediately. Surely the Packers will roll safety help for Jones, right?
Demovsky: This has to be an area of concern for the Packers, especially since Shields is coming off a concussion on Sunday against the Patriots. However, the good thing is the Packers don't often try to match Shields -- or any other defensive back -- on one player for an entire game. Their days of matching up that way ended when Charles Woodson's time in Green Bay were done. They're more likely to play sides, so that means guys such as Tramon Williams, nickel back Micah Hyde, dime back Casey Hayward or even Davon House (who would play on the outside if Shields can't go) would take turns on Jones. But the biggest thing is the help they'd get from their safeties, which are playing far better in coverage this season than they did last year thanks in part to rookie first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
As long as we're discussing matchup problems, the Packers had to prepare for Hester's magic in the return game for years when he was with the Bears. Is he as dangerous in the return game as he once was, and what kind of role, if any, does he have on offense?
McClure: Hester scored his first-career touchdown on an 84-yard punt return in Lambeau Field, so I'm sure Monday night will bring back some fond memories for him. That was eight years ago, but Hester continues to be a dynamic return man at the age of 32. He should have had a 70-yard punt return score against Arizona last week, but the officials blew the call and whistled him for a face mask when he threw an open-hand stiff-arm at the punter before reaching the end zone. I'm sure Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum saw the replay and realized Hester still has his burst and wiggle. Offensively, Hester definitely has a role and has accepted it. I think it was hard for him at first because he wasn't getting the amount of touches he had hoped to receive. The Falcons know what Hester is capable of with the ball in his hands, so they've been creative with bubble screens and reverses. Hester averages 10.7 yards per touch on offense with two touchdowns -- one rushing and one receiving.
I've seen how dominant Aaron Rodgers can be, particularly when teams give him time to move around. Like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, he has success with whatever weapons he has. So tell me about this new weapon he has in rookie Davante Adams and how he fits with the other pieces Rodgers has at receiver?
Demovsky: When the Packers picked Adams in the second round out of Fresno State this year, there were immediate comparisons to James Jones because of their size. But House told me early on that Adams actually reminded him more of Greg Jennings because of his precise route-running ability. Jennings was one of the best route runners the Packers have had over the past two decades, so that's quite the compliment. Adams has benefited from the extra attention teams have had to pay to Nelson on the outside. If you try to play Nelson in man coverage without help, you’re asking for trouble. So what happens quite a bit is Adams get one-on-one coverage on the backside. Adams still has a ways to go as far as understanding the nuances of the offense and where Rodgers wants him to be at times, but he looks like the next in what has been a long line of productive Packers receivers who have come by way of the draft.
Tell me this: Is the NFC South as bad as it looks?
McClure: In a Charles Barkley voice, I'd call the division "terrible." The four teams are a combined 2-11-1 against the AFC this year, with the Buccaneers and Saints somehow managing to take down the Steelers (7-5). No NFC South team is above .500 at home. And here is the stat that really gets me: The Falcons had a five-game losing streak yet remain undefeated in division play at 4-0. There was talk about a five-win team winning the division, but that's not going to happen now with the Falcons and Saints both 5-7 and facing each other again Dec. 21. All four NFC South teams surrender 24.9 points or more per game. The Saints and Falcons rank second-to-last and last in total defense, respectively, yielding 390.5 yards and 403.2 yards per game. It has been a comedy of errors watching these teams, but somebody's got to win it.
One of the storylines going into this game is sure to be the first NFL matchup between Packers linebacker Clay Matthews and his cousin, Falcons rookie left tackle Jake Matthews. I know Clay had made a transition to inside linebacker. Tell me how that’s going for him. I know he still rushes in certain packages. But does he miss playing outside linebacker?
Demovsky: He won't come right out and say it, but you get the sense he does miss his old job. Shortly after the change last month he said in a perfect world, he'd line up on the outside and pass rush on every snap. But he knows it doesn't work that way. The interesting thing is that since this change, which came after the bye week, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has come up with a new look for Matthews almost every week. The first time, it was simply Matthews lining up at inside linebacker in the base and nickel packages and at outside linebacker in the dime package. Then, instead of playing outside linebacker in the dime, the next week he actually lined up outside of the outside linebacker. And then last week against the Patriots, he played the lone inside spot in the dime, a position he had never before played. His sack total is down, but he might be having a bigger impact on this defense.