The last game in the Georgia Dome is shaping up as an epic shootout with perhaps the top two candidates for the NFL MVP award in Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Packers signal-caller Aaron Rodgers headlining the marquee.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn would rather keep Rodgers holstered in Sunday’s NFC Championship game. Specifically, the Falcons don’t want him leaving the pocket, as they’re well aware of how dangerous the Packers’ quarterback is when throwing on the move.
Ryan found Mohamed Sanu for an 11-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left in the game Oct. 30, when the Packers last visited the Dome. That was just barely enough to hold off Green Bay, which lost 33-32 despite four touchdown passes by Rodgers — all thrown after he left the pocket.
The two-time NFL MVP was at it again Sunday, torturing the Cowboys while completing 7 of 9 passes from outside of the pocket for 137 yards and a touchdown. Against the Giants a week earlier, he completed 8 of 9.
“That’s where the chess match takes place,” Quinn said Monday. “Do you assign somebody to him? Which downs can you do that? Which downs can you not afford to do that because when you do that, there are some other areas that he’s going to go after.
“He’s the type of player (for whom) you’d better have some different looks to not just play the same thing down-in and down-out. He’s experienced to speed up the tempo when he would like to, back off the tempo, be outside the pocket, be inside the pocket so I think that was on display last night (against Dallas).”
The Packers were in a midseason lull when they played the Falcons two-and-a-half months ago, although Rodgers was 28 of 38 for 246 yards and no interceptions that day. He also ran six times for 60 yards, and was sacked three times. Ryan was 28 of 35 for 288 yards, three touchdowns and no picks that day.
Green Bay has won on eight consecutive games, however, since bottoming out at 4-6, and Rodgers has led the way. With a passer rating off 117.8 during the streak, he’s thrown 21 touchdown passes and just one interception — that coming Sunday in Dallas to break a seven-game, 318-pass streak without one.
He overcame that mistake.
When Rodgers delivered a perfect 36-yard pass to Green Bay wide receiver Jared Cook with 13 seconds left to set up a game-winning field goal by Mason Crosby as time expired in Arlington, he was at his classic best.
After spinning clockwise in the pocket after receiving the snap, he broke to his left and as he approached the sideline let it fly. The connection with Cook — who barely tapped two toes down to make the catch — represented a familiar scene:
Over the past two seasons, he’s completed 5 of 8 passes thrown 30 or more yards in the last minute of the fourth quarter. All other NFL quarterbacks are a combined 4 of 46 in that time.
“Through the years, in my own coaching against Green Bay, there’s been a number of times where it totally comes down to the finish,” Quinn said. “We expect that going in, that’s it’s going to come right down to the end. These kinds of games usually do, when it’s two evenly-matched, tough opponents.
“We do expect this to go down to the end. He is one of the very best at that. For us, it’s a terrific challenge.”