GREEN BAY – If there's one comment from this past week that sums up the heart of the matter for Sunday's Packers-Falcons matchup, it was delivered by Clay Matthews.
"I think if you had told anybody at the beginning of this year that we'd have the records which we have, most people would probably laugh at that," Matthews said at his locker after Thursday's practice. "But that's the reality of it."
The reality indeed is a 4-7-1 team hosting a 4-8 team in a game many thought when the 2018 slate came out was a flex-scheduling candidate that would have postseason implications.
For all the similarities, though, these are two teams in very different places big-picture-wise, the Packers' head coaching change notwithstanding.
All you have to do is look at the lineups these two squads put out there 23 months ago in the 2016 NFC title game, and what the rosters look like now, to see Green Bay in the midst of a major personnel transition and Atlanta still built around the same core that should have captured the franchise's first Super Bowl title.
For the Packers, while four of their five starters on the offensive line remain the same (T.J. Lang the lone exception), not one of the running backs and only two of Aaron Rodgers' pass catchers (Davante Adams, Randall Cobb) from the last meeting with the Falcons will be playing Sunday at Lambeau Field. Geronimo Allison and Trevor Davis are on injured reserve, but a total of 10 offensive perimeter players from the Packers' 53-man roster that week are no longer on the team.
Even more dramatic, just one defensive starter from that conference title game – Matthews – will be playing, with eight of the 11 starters no longer on the roster, and Mike Daniels and Jake Ryan on injured reserve. Though it should be noted a few who came off the bench that day (Blake Martinez, Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry) remain prominent pieces now.
Contrast that with the Falcons, who have had far less turnover. Were it not for guard Andy Levitre and running back Devonta Freeman being on IR, 10 of 11 starters would remain in place on QB Matt Ryan's offense. On defense, only three starters have changed, not including defensive backs Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, also currently on IR.
Beginning with some injuries on defense, the Falcons' season started poorly at 1-4, but they rallied for three straight wins before things headed south again. Now it's the offense that can't do what's expected, failing to reach 20 points in any of the four straight losses.
But it's easy to see the Falcons chalking this up to a down year, looking to get healthy, keep their core intact, and target a few pieces to get back into the thick of it. They were goal-to-go for a return to the NFC title game just 11 months ago.
The Packers are in a different stage, and not just because a new head coach will be hired sometime next month. They're heading for their second straight playoff-less season for the first time in a dozen years, with a number of decisions to make on veteran contracts, and more draft capital – three picks in probably at most the first 45 selections next April – than Green Bay has possessed in recent memory.
The point of all this is to lay it out there now, just in case next year these two teams are right back where they were 23 months ago, squaring off for a shot at the Super Bowl. Far-fetched for two teams with a combined eight wins in December? Perhaps, but not totally crazy.
The Falcons are still built to win now and should be able to use a higher draft position than they planned on to add to a veteran, experienced core for another run at it. For the Packers, all anyone needs to do is look at what one home run of a draft did for the Saints. It turned a team with a Hall of Fame QB coming off three straight 7-9 seasons into a bona fide contender, and one Minneapolis Miracle away from the NFC title game last year.
Speaking about the position these two teams are in now compared to January of 2017, Cobb said this week, "Every year is different. It's part of the game."
Very true now, and going forward as well.