Atlanta's playoff run depends on Turner

When the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers meet in the Georgia Dome on Saturday night, the most important man in the building might be Falcons running back Michael Turner.

Take a look at his numbers through his history with Atlanta and they usually are a pretty good gauge of how the Falcons are going to fare. Turner has been virtually Atlanta’s entire running game since his arrival in 2008, and the Falcons are 19-2 in games where they’ve had a 100-yard rusher in that span.

If you want something more recent and even more directly relevant, just look back to the Week 12 meeting between the Falcons and Packers. Turner carried 23 times for 110 yards and a touchdown in that game and the Falcons won 20-17.

There is a lesson to be taken from that.

“That we can be successful against them,’’ Turner said. “The game’s probably going [to be] tougher next time we play against them. They’re probably going to adjust and do some things differently. We expect that. We just have to be on our toes and be ready for whatever they bring.’’

The formula is very simple: When the Falcons are able to run the ball, they have success. But there are a couple of things that could complicate that and the Packers know it. In Atlanta’s three losses this season, Turner didn’t top the 50-yard rushing mark.

“Green Bay’s front seven is playing much better than it was when they met the first time,’’ Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson said. “In fact, Green Bay’s front seven, particularly [defensive tackle] B.J. Raji, is playing at a very high level right now. I don’t like this matchup for Atlanta’s running game.’’

Turner has had only one other 100-yard running game since the previous Green Bay game and that was a 112-yard performance against a struggling Carolina team in Week 14.

“In some ways, I think Atlanta’s running game is overrated,’’ Williamson said. “They don’t have the long runs and they don’t give you a lot of yards per carry. But, on the flip side, it is the foundation of their offense. They’re dedicated to it and they rarely stray from it.’’

The Falcons didn’t stray from their running game this year, even with Jerious Norwood, Atlanta’s speed back, going down early with a season-ending injury. When backup Jason Snelling missed some time in the middle of the season with an injury, the Falcons simply kept giving the ball to Turner. He responded with 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns. But his 334 carries were probably about 30 more than the Falcons wanted to give him.

Turner averaged 4.1 yards per carry, which is down from the 4.9 he averaged in 2009 and the 4.5 he averaged in 2008 when he rushed for a career-best 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns on 376 carries.

“A lot is made of the 'curse of 370 carries,' but I think there is something to that,’’ Williamson said. “Turner is not quite what he was when he first got to Atlanta. Back then, he might have been one of the top three or four backs in the league. Now, I’d put him seventh or eighth. He’s starting to lose that pop and he doesn’t give you many big runs. I tend to say his arrow is pointing down now.’’

But the Falcons need that arrow going up if they plan on going deep into the postseason. They need Turner to produce in order to open things up for a passing game that features quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez.

The long season might have put some more wear and tear on Turner’s body. In the regular season, Turner ranked fourth in the league with 23 broken tackles and 694 rushing yards after first contact. But the biggest advantage the Falcons may have Saturday might be the fact Green Bay had to play a tough, physical game against Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs while the top-seeded Falcons had a bye.

That gave Turner some rest and that might be the best thing that could happen for Atlanta’s offense.

“It was a chance for my body to heal up a little bit more than usual,’’ Turner said. “I’m ready to roll this week.’’