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All it takes is one play here or there

Atlanta's defense is much improved since first meeting with Packers


Josh from Atlanta, GA

The key to this game to me is stopping the run to get Matt Ryan into third-and-long, as well as blocking Vic Beasley. Matt and Julio get a lot of love, but Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are both great, versatile backs not unlike Ty. Vic is possibly the best pass rusher in the league that doesn't get talked about. And watch out for Taylor Gabriel. He literally flies and burned us in the first game if I recall.

Is that all? It's a good summary, and it speaks to the Falcons' wealth of talent. You've named pretty much everyone that gets highlighted and starred on the scouting report. Bakhtiari and Bulaga have risen to the challenge on the edges every week, so Beasley will have his hands full. Coleman didn't play in the first game, but that 1-2 punch with Freeman is like having the same guy with fresh legs for every play. Gabriel hit the Packers for a 47-yard TD in the first meeting, but caught only two other passes. I think he's the toughest matchup outside of Jones.

Alan from Mount Auburn, IL

I looked at the Falcons' website and it shows all of our defensive backs' quarterback ratings. They appear to be licking their chops. Hasn't everyone been doing that for the two months?

And yet only twice in eight games has the opponent scored more than 25 points, despite all the injury shuffling. Green Bay's secondary has a tough task, no doubt, but whoever is out there will battle to the end, and all it takes is one play here or there to change a game.

Jon from Green Bay, WI

Biff, I think the "We want the ball and are going to score!" walk-off pick-six would be after the Ice Bowl and last week's game.

The Al Harris finish certainly belongs on the list. Others have mentioned the '66 title game in Dallas, which concluded with Dave Robinson's pressure and Tom Brown's end-zone interception. The '65 Western Conference title game was won in overtime. Where last Sunday ultimately ranks could be determined by what happens from here on out.

Eric from Tenvik, Norway

The Tuesday question about career-defining moments got me to thinking about career-breakout moments. When I think of Rodgers, I think his breakout moment was the wild-card game at Arizona. Kurt Warner was playing lights out at that time and when I watched Aaron do what he did to keep that game alive, I thought, "Wow, he actually replaced (as opposed to just followed) Favre." When were you first made aware of his greatness?

I go back a few weeks from there, to the Dec. '09 game at Pittsburgh.

Don from Colorado Springs, CO

This is the fourth year in a row the Packers are in the playoffs in the fourth quarter and the defense can't stop any team. Rodgers and the offense had time this year to save the day and everyone is thrilled. However, had the defense stopped the Cowboys in the fourth quarter, Rodgers would not have had to make the great play. How come none of you ever address the defense problem in the fourth quarter? It has defeated us three years in a row and almost again this year.

What would you like me to say? The Packers' offense has been better than its defense every year since 2011, and the opponents don't make the playoffs with crappy offenses. Three years in a row? OK. In 2013, two defensive starters (Shields and Neal) exited with injuries in the first quarter, Perry was playing on a broken foot, Mulumba was chasing San Fran's QB on one leg, a rookie almost made the game-saving pick, and a deep-reserve DB blew containment on a blitz. Last year, the Cardinals scored their go-ahead TD in the fourth quarter off a lucky bounce – a deflected pass – three plays after a near-interception at the front pylon, which was one possession after an end-zone pick to start the fourth quarter preserved the lead at the time. In Dallas, the most veteran member of the entire secondary leaves with an injury in the first quarter, and the defense got a stop at the 33-yard line with 40 seconds left. Your narrative is based on 2014 in Seattle, and you're welcome to stick to it, but spare me the over-arching generalizations that take into account only the what and not the why and how.

Jim from San Antonio, TX

Spoff, in 2010, the Packers played the Bears in the NFC Championship. In the six seasons since, the Packers are 66-29-1, five-time division winners, and played in two more NFC title games. The Bears have gone 40-56, and not made the playoffs once. So let's enjoy being here again, and appreciate the work that goes into keeping this team near the top.

Every day.

David from Apple Valley, MN

Huge win for the organization, players, coaches, and fans. After such an emotional game, how do the players and coaches stay focused and hungry for Atlanta? How does Coach McCarthy avoid a letdown?

I have no idea how Sunday's game will turn out, but no way a lack of focus or hunger, nor a letdown, is what might stop this team.

Dan from Golden, CO

What is your take on Atlanta's defense? I see they are at the bottom in yards allowed, but as we've seen before this stat doesn't always tell the truth. Like the 2011 Packers, they gave up a lot of yards because teams were constantly playing catch-up. Is this the same case?

Not in my mind. Atlanta's defense has grown and improved under head coach Dan Quinn, the former Seattle defensive coordinator, since the beginning of the season. The Falcons had a late bye, after 10 games, and since then they've allowed more than 20 points only twice, to Kansas City and New Orleans. They're better than they were when the Packers first visited.

Mike from Milwaukee, WI

Where does Spoff get his aerial footage for WYMM?

Our video department is kind enough to share with me the all-22 film from each game. I'm eternally grateful.

Glen from Eugene, OR

Why don't other QBs catch the Packers with too many men on the field?

Because they don't practice watching the opponents' substitution patterns and lining up in a flash to take advantage.

Paul from Hartland, WI

Has the constant need to adjust because of injury helped the Packers stay fresh and keep defenses from being able to predict how we'll play them? The return of Cook from injury, the use of Monty as a RB and the emergence of Allison and Ripko have been impactful down the stretch and would have not happened without Cook, Lacy, Starks and Jordy missing time.

I don't look at it that way. But I do think it helps that all three playoff opponents played the Packers before they really became this year's Packers.

Tom from Cottage Grove, MN

Great victory but haven't seen much discussion on McCarthy going so conservative before the 56-yard field goal. Two running plays and especially the second one out of a heavy run formation (I believe 2 tight ends and an extra lineman). Seemed like it was way too early to take your foot off the gas, and we needed at least another first down to be able to run the clock down. I think we were lucky that did not end up costing us the game. Did you think he was too conservative?

He was trying to win the game, and end it, on that possession. He's looking for the run on second-and-8 (after which Dallas used its second timeout, with 1:44 left) to make it third-and-5 or less, which gives him a large playbook to convert. Then it's one play to move the chains, and with Dallas having only one timeout left, you can just about expire the clock with three more plays before trying a final kick. As they say about the best-laid plans … Had he known two guys were going to totally miss their blocks in the jumbo formation so Montgomery would lose 5 yards on second down, I'm sure he would have called something else.

Nathanael from Belle Plaine, MN

When I looked through the picture tour of the Dallas locker room, every locker had a large magazine-type book that said "Finish this Fight" on the cover with a picture of Ha Ha and Martinez. What's in a book like that, who puts it together, why do they give one to all the players, and do they put something like that together every week? Seems like a lot of work.

I can't help chuckling a bit at your interpretation. That was actually the game program from Sunday's game, produced by the Cowboys, featuring their postseason slogan "Finish this Fight" (which was all over the JumboTron for hours, too) and pictures of Ezekiel Elliott (21) and Sean Lee (50).

Ignacio from Montevideo, Uruguay

"I think Crosby's kick to send the NFC title game to OT two years ago was the most clutch kick in franchise history since Chandler in the '65 playoffs, but it won't be remembered as such, for the obvious reason. Maybe he's got a clutch make coming that will be remembered better." Spoff, you actually saw that coming. I can't stop thinking about your comment since Sunday.

Which probably means anything I say about this week's game will be total garbage. Consider yourself forewarned.

Charlie from Denver, CO

At the end of the first half we punted to the Cowboys and they took a fair catch as time ran out. I thought there was a rule that would have allowed Dallas to take a free kick at a field goal? Did they just not elect to take that or was this not the correct situation? They were at around the 45, so a free kick of 60 yards would not be unheard of.

They had the option. The fair catch was on their own 38, so it would have been 72 yards. I suggested inmy chat yesterdaythat maybe they declined because the Packers would have had an opportunity to return it, but I wasn't sure of the rule. The yardage may also have been simply out of Bailey's range without a tee.

Chris from Minneapolis, MN

I'm hoping the MVP award will be a nice consolation prize for Matt Ryan.

So is Aaron Rodgers, who ended up in that very position two years ago.

Nathan from San Diego, CA

Passer rating is an interesting stat. Dak had a higher one than Rodgers, yet I doubt many observers would have any trouble stating Rodgers played at a substantially higher level than Dak on Sunday. Where is the disconnect between the rating and our perception of a performance?

Montgomery rushed for two TDs, so Rodgers only threw for two, and Prescott threw for three. That's why the numbers came out as they did. If Prescott has the exact same stats but Elliott rushes for one of those three TDs, Prescott's rating drops from 103.2 to 94.4, below Rodgers by 2.3 rating points. The kid still played pretty darn well for his first postseason game, though.

Brent from Portage, WI

Why do people in this column obsess over nicknames so much? The best nicknames simply happen, in my opinion. Maybe I'm just no fun?

I guess neither am I. I'm with you on this one.

Aaron from Des Moines, IA

With regard to the non-fumble on the sack. How do you practice that? How does a player prepare to not fumble when they don't know they're going to get hit?

In this particular case, I think it was the strength of Rodgers' grip, the instinct to start tucking it immediately on contact, and the fact that Heath didn't try to swipe at the arm to get a piece of the ball. The Packers' coaches harped on their defenders missing opportunities like that for turnovers earlier in the year. Heath went for the hit, not the ball.

Eric from Goodhue, MN

So if you are Jason Garrett on that last series, do you run the ball on third down? You have a timeout in your pocket if you need it. Force the Packers to burn one. Could've been a game-changer.

With 44 seconds left, I don't see the Packers, with a three-point lead, burning a timeout with the Cowboys 25-30 yards from the end zone. Garrett was trying to win the game with a TD drive calling pass there. That said, your question prompted me to look back through the play-by-play and I found what I think is the most astonishing stat from Sunday's game. Including the play you mention, nine times the Cowboys needed 3 yards or less on second or third down to move the sticks, and they gave the ball to Elliott only once on those nine plays. He converted his, and they converted on four of the other eight, so it's not as though the trend doomed them, but for that tendency to carry so strongly throughout the game stuns me.

Joe from Asbury, IA

Is third-and-20 now the Cowboys' own version of fourth-and-26?

Not even close. Extending a game and closing it out are two different animals.

Graham from Kansas City, KS

Insiders, did you notice Aaron's subtle dig at T.J. Lang for leaving the game due to his busted chinstrap? Lots of folks are saying coincidence but I think we all know the truth, and personally I love that the leader of this team has that ultra-competitive edge, where not even your own teammates get a free pass.

C'mon, really? If Lang tries to take one snap with a malfunctioning chin strap he could get his nose broken, or worse. Rodgers just forgets sometimes. He didn't have his buckled when he threw that last-second TD pass to Quarless in Miami two years ago.

Lori from Brookfield, WI

AR and MM were very subdued and serious in their post-game press conference on Sunday, not jubilant and excited as might have been expected. Were they just exhausted, having put everything into their efforts on the field? (I was exhausted and all I did was watch the game...)

I think it was a combination of exhaustion and the acute realization they're not done yet.

Luke from Oconomowoc, WI

What would have happened if Hyde was wrong? Would Gunter have had to defend two players simultaneously?

Clinton-Dix was shaded over to that side, so it would have created a pair of one-on-one matchups, essentially.

Mark from Baltimore, MD

After losses to NY, SF, SEA, and AZ I had to walk away from the last two minutes. My lasting memory will be hearing my wife yell with joy. I have the Ice Bowl, when I was too young to turn away from the possible train wreck. Tell me I'm still a fan?

You are, albeit a troubled one. Don't fear the tension, embrace it.

Nathan from Baltimore, MD

Buck and Aikman have mentioned in recent broadcasts how the Packers have built the best pass-blocking O-line in the league to give Rodgers time to do his thing. Is it possible to draft linemen for pass-blocking traits versus run-blocking traits? Or is that a matter of coaching?

Three of the five starting linemen were left tackles in college (it was four when Sitton was here), which is the premier pass-blocking position.

Tony from Chicago, IL

Hey Mike, it was good getting to meet you before the game! Two questions: Did you guys and the team have to ride out the storm in the stadium, or were you able to get out before the worst of it? Also, before the game you thought red-zone performance would be the difference in the game. Do you still think that's what won it, or should we credit Rodgers' magic and Crosby's leg?

Good meeting you, too. We had a long delay sitting on the bus both within the flooding bowels of AT&T Stadium and on the runway next to our plane, but we eventually got home. That's all that matters. As for what won it, I take nothing away from magic wands and powerful legs, but the Cowboys were 2-for-4 in the red zone, while the Packers were 3-for-3. It made a difference, and the Packers are now 23-for-31 (74 percent) getting TDs in the red zone during the eight-game winning streak. That's phenomenal.

Simon from Mountain View, CA

Can't wait to read Spoff's last answer.

I had to throw it out once in my chat, so here I'll save it for Friday.

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