5 NFC Championship Game X-Factors for the Packers and Falcons
The #RevengeGame is one of the narratives people use to convince themselves to start a player in fantasy football -- when a particular player is facing their previous team.
“They resent the other team for getting rid of them,” the narrative goes, “so they’ll try harder and score more on them.” Well, if that’s the case, the one player you want to start in this week’s NFC Championship matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers is practice squad rookie running back Jhurrell Pressley.
Doesn’t sound so appealing now, does it?
There are actual narratives we should be following in this game, however, as the Packers get a chance to even the score after losing to the Falcons by a point this year, while Atlanta can avenge the home blowout Green Bay laid on them during their Super Bowl run in 2010.
There are many reasons to follow this game’s potential twists and turns, but we don’t even need stories of revenge to draw excitement into this match. It’s going to be explosive, no matter what.
What will be the keys to the NFC Championship between the Falcons and Packers?
When the Packers and Falcons met in Week 8, they had an entirely different cast of characters featured than will represent the teams here in the semifinal round of the playoffs. New faces can lead to surprising outcomes.
Atlanta regains the services of running back Tevin Coleman, whose Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per attempt ranks 10th among the 42 running backs to earn 100 or more carries this year. Coleman is also the most lethal receiving back in the league this year, with a Reception NEP per target of 0.78 -- the most among 43 backs with at least 30 targets. He sat out the previous matchup with hamstring tightness, but is ready to roll on Sunday.
Green Bay arguably gets back less top-tier impact, but much more depth. Five Packers will start who missed Week 8’s tilt, including running back revelation Ty Montgomery -- whose 0.08 Rushing NEP per carry outpaces Coleman. Wide receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Jared Cook will return, both of whom are already huge postseason heroes; Cobb posted 116 yards and 3 touchdowns on 7 targets in the wild card round, and Jared Cook snared 103 yards and a score on 11 targets last week, including the highlight-reel catch to put the Pack in field goal range to win the game.
That’s without even mentioning the return of star rush linebacker Clay Matthews or cornerback Damarious Randall. With Matthews out of the lineup for four weeks, the Packers allowed a significantly higher opposing pass completion rate, yards per attempt and touchdown rate while generating a much lower sack rate.
These are big returns for both teams.
A Battle of MVPs
This year's MVP race has been discussed plenty, and there are different cases to make for many players. Some have said Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott or running back Ezekiel Elliott deserved the honor, but the two frontrunners were always Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.
By our Passing NEP per drop back metric, both ranked in the top five among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs this year. Still, the unequivocal truth of the matter is Ryan has produced nearly one-and-a-half times the passing value Rodgers has on a per-play basis.
When we look at rushing value, we know Rodgers has the preternatural ability to extend plays and turn busted snaps into big gains and the data bears that out. The Green Bay signal-caller has produced 25.37 Rushing NEP to Ryan’s 10.65.
Both are exceptional players, which is why they come in first and third in Total NEP among quarterbacks. Ryan simply has the edge this season.
A Two-Headed Monster vs. the Green Wall
We mentioned Atlanta running back Tevin Coleman before, but he’s actually the second-best runner in the Falcons backfield. Devonta Freeman has led the charge for the last two seasons, and runs like his hair is on fire. That shows in the data: Freeman’s 0.10 Rushing NEP per attempt comes in fifth among running backs, and he ranked seventh in the same metric last season.
He’s also no slouch in the receiving game. Freeman has created 0.41 Reception NEP per target this year, ranking 12th. The dual-threat nature of both Freeman and Coleman makes the Atlanta backfield versatile and dangerous for any team to defend.
The Packers have been one of the stouter defenses against the run this year, however. Through Week 11, Green Bay had spent all but one week in the top-five with regard to opponent-adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. They ended the season ranked 10th, having given up the eighth-fewest rushing yards per game and 10th-fewest touchdowns per game.
While the Packers are not impenetrable on the ground, they won’t be pushovers.
Streaking in the Secondary
Both secondaries have been on fire since Week 12. As our own Samuel Feldman explains, “the Falcons’ poor analytical rankings are haunted by their early-season performance. If we extrapolate… [they] would be ranked in the top-12 for Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP.”
Sure enough, by opponent-adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, Atlanta would come in 12th with 0.05 and Green Bay has surged to 15th with 0.07 since their win streak began the same week.
Even per-attempt rates for traditional statistics show these two teams are on tears since Week 12. The table below shows their ranks in the league from the start of their respective hot streaks onward.
The Falcons have been outstanding at preventing yards and scores, but the Packers have been lights out when it comes to forcing turnovers and generating pressure. There is no clear winner here, but we should get fun, physical aerial football.
In a matchup of two great quarterbacks, of course everything comes down to the passing game.
The big difference between the Packers and Falcons here is how often the Pack have had to throw to play catch-up. Since Week 12, the Packers have a 1.41 pass-to-run ratio, whereas the Falcons have been able to nurse leads and balance their deep passing attack with Freeman and Coleman -- resulting in a 1.18 ratio.
Moreover, top receivers Julio Jones and Jordy Nelson are each in top five in Reception NEP and top 10 in Reception NEP per target. The difference here is that the Falcons’ Jones is expected to play despite a toe injury, while the Packers’ Nelson is a longshot to suit up. Davante Adams is also severely injured, and Green Bay's third and fourth options in Cobb and Geronimo Allison are also banged up, while Atlanta's receiving corps is finally at full strength once again.
You may be reminded, as bleak as that is, it sometimes only takes one Hail Mary from Aaron Rodgers to seal a victory, but the deep passing magic the Pack has relied on isn’t a wing-and-a-prayer for Matt Ryan; it’s their bread and butter. The table below shows each player’s success on deep passing, according to Pro Football Reference.
Can the Falcons keep flying high here, or will a long-range shot help the Packers clip their wings? Only time will tell who gets the bragging rights from this grudge match.