Eight months ago the Green Bay Packers were humiliated by the Atlanta Falcons, but it’s time to forget about last year’s NFC Championship Game.
Much has changed since the Packers’ season fell one game short of the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. The two teams that will take to the field are different. Even the stadium has changed.
Green Bay’s final visit to the Georgia Dome turned sour in a hurry, but Sunday they have the chance to open the Mercedes-Benz Stadium chapter in a more positive light. It’s not about revenge, rather the opportunity to take early command of the NFC.
With victory on Sunday, the Packers could knock off two of their biggest challengers in the conference, picking up a pair of vital head-to-head tiebreakers while also pulling ahead in the win column.
Atlanta was unstoppable in January, but looked all too human during last week’s late scare at Chicago. Had Jordan Howard known how to catch a football, the Falcons would sit 0-1.
The Falcons retained the core of what made their offense so successful in 2016 — Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman will give Dom Capers’ defense all it can handle — but one thing is different this time. Kyle Shanahan, the master behind Atlanta’s rise on offense last year, is now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is tasked with maintaining their momentum.
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The Packers, too, have changed.
LaDarius Gunter was the team’s top cornerback when these two met in January. He was released by the Packers on Tuesday. That alone shows the cornerback room is much healthier than it was then.
Someone that knows a thing or two about beating the Falcons is the man who caught five passes for 62 yards in the Super Bowl. His name is Martellus Bennett, and he helped the Patriots pull off the miracle of all football miracles last February.
Bennett, who swapped blue and silver for green and gold in March, gives the offense a new dimension, and he could be a key factor in Sunday’s game.
The most stunning change we’ve seen so far has come on defense. General manager Ted Thompson stocked up on defensive talent this offseason, most notably adding cornerbacks Kevin King and veteran Davon House. He drafted hard-hitting safety Josh Jones and even signed veteran edge rusher Ahmad Brooks last month.
More importantly, the returning Packers got healthy, and it showed against the Seahawks. Green Bay shut Seattle out of the end zone, sacked Russell Wilson three times, forced a turnover and made Eddie Lacy wish he’d have stayed on the team bus.
Atlanta’s offense will present a tougher challenge than Seattle, but the early indications are good for the Packers.
Much has changed since the Falcons crushed Green Bay’s championship hopes last January. Sunday isn’t about revenge. It’s about moving a step closer to the NFC’s first seed.