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N.F.C. Championship: Falcons Driving on Packers Again

Ripkowski Fumbles Away a Scoring Chance

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Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski fumbled in the second quarter. The Falcons recovered the ball in the end zone.

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David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Packers had another drive end in frustration when Aaron Ripkowski fumbled at the end of a 12-yard run that short-circuited a drive that went 64 yards on 7 plays. The Falcons recovered the fumble in the end zone, ending Green Bay’s scoring opportunity.

Green Bay’s offense had looked strong on the drive, with Randall Cobb catching two passes for 39 yards, but Atlanta’s defense swarmed Ripkowski at the 11-yard line, ripping the ball out of the fullback’s hands.

Falcons Continue to Move the Ball

Matt Ryan again led the team in a relentless drive, this time going 59 yards in 12 plays, but after failing to convert a third down they had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to push the score to 10-0.

Ryan is up to 125 passing yards, with Mohamed Sanu proving to be his favorite target thus far with 4 catches for 46 yards. Sanu was also the team’s top receiver in Atlanta’s win over Green Bay in Week 8, catching 9 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown.

The Falcons’ success has come despite the fact that Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have just 17 rushing yards thus far and Julio Jones has just 2 catches for 10 yards.

The second scoring drive for Atlanta that came on the heels of an opening offensive possession for Green Bay in which the team proved that Jordy Nelson was quite capable of playing through broken ribs, as he had two receptions for 42 yards, but that effort was wasted when the drive stalled out on Atlanta’s side of the field and then Mason Crosby missed wide-right on a 41-yard field goal attempt.

Falcons Score on First Drive

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Atlanta’s Patrick DiMarco is hit after a long catch-and-run against the Packers in the first quarter.

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Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The versatility of the Falcons’ offense was on full display for the opening drive of the game, as Matt Ryan & Co. endured a few mistakes but still marched down the field with relative ease, going 80 yards on 13 plays. Ryan flipped the ball underhanded to Mohamed Sanu in the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown pass which along with the extra-point gave them a 7-0 lead.

Green Bay’s defense has played short-handed throughout the playoffs, and Ryan was able to exploit the secondary for 64 passing yards despite Taylor Gabriel and Julio Jones each coming up short on a catchable ball (though Jones had a lot of help from Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, who delivered a crushing blow as Jones tried to reel in the overthrown pass).

This is now the eighth consecutive game that Atlanta has scored a touchdown on their opening drive, and in potentially troubling news, the Packers may be down one more defensive back as Kentrell Brice was hurt while defending on the opening kickoff.

A Look at the Matchups

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Packers receiver Jordy Nelson practiced without pads this week, but is expected to play against the Falcons.

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Jim Matthews/The Green Bay Press-Gazette, via Associated Press

N.F.C. Championship

Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

Time: 3:05 p.m. Eastern on Fox

To call the Packers’ wide receivers beat up would be an understatement. Jordy Nelson will wear a Kevlar vest to try to protect his broken ribs while Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison will try to play despite injuries (ankle for Adams, hamstring for Allison) that kept them out of practice all week.

Being down to one fully-healthy receiver (Randall Cobb) is better than the team has it at running back, where the first- and second-stringers Eddie Lacy and James Starks are distant memories. Ty Montgomery, a second-year wide receiver who is still learning the position, has done his best to replace them. Even Christine Michael, Montgomery’s backup, is questionable with a back injury.

Add all that to a defense whose secondary has been ravaged by injury, and it is hard to figure out how they have won eight consecutive games. But so far, there seems to be nothing that can get in Aaron Rodgers’s way. The Green Bay quarterback continually amazes with deep passes that defy all logic yet find their way into the hands of whatever teammates happen to be healthy.

The Packers may have plenty of experience playing from behind, and that is a real danger against a Falcons offense that finally is living up to the potential it has had throughout Matt Ryan’s career.

The key to unlocking Ryan’s passing game may have been the development of a versatile running game led by Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Both backs are dangerous as runners as well as receivers, and they each scored more than 10 touchdowns, which gave Ryan plenty of room to work with. It would be easy to assume Ryan looks for Julio Jones on every play, but he has also made good use of Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, creating a nightmare for the thin Packers secondary. Unsurprisingly, that recipe led to N.F.L.-leading 540 points this season.

The hole in Atlanta’s armor is the team’s defense, which ranked 27th of 32 teams in points allowed with an average of 25.4 points a game.

It all adds up to two offenses that cannot be stopped (regardless of personnel) and two defenses that do not do much in the way of stopping. The “over” line of 60.5 points seems low.

A.F.C. Championship

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) at New England Patriots (14-2)

Time: 6:40 p.m. Eastern on CBS

That the Pittsburgh Steelers won a divisional-round matchup over Kansas City without scoring a touchdown was impressive but also confusing. An offensive slump from a team with Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Browns just seems to defy logic, but time and again the Steelers got inside the Chiefs’ 30 and then stalled, settling for a playoff record six field goals by Chris Boswell (who made it clear after the game that no one should consider him a fourth Killer B).

It is hard to blame Bell for the struggles, given that he has set a franchise record for rushing yards in a playoff game in each of his last two appearances, and Brown has certainly done his part with 11 catches for 232 yards and two touchdowns, so it may be time to wonder how healthy Roethlisberger is. The two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback had yet another strong season, with 29 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions, but he has been held to 224 passing yards or fewer in each of the team’s playoff wins, and has just two touchdown passes to go with three interceptions.

Luckily for the Steelers, the offensive slowdown has coincided with the defense’s being seemingly reborn. Holding Miami to 12 points was impressive, but they opened far more eyes by shutting down the No. 2-seeded Chiefs throughout the game, with only a late (and ultimately meaningless) touchdown marring a dominant effort in the 18-16 win. Along the way, the team may have found its latest terrifying option at outside linebacker, with Bud Dupree having one of the more amazing comeback stories, as he was on injured reserve this season, did not play until Week 11 and has had several hard-to-forget plays already in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh’s offense and defense will have to find their mojo for a chance of beating New England in Foxborough. The Patriots weathered Tom Brady’s four-game suspension by going 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, and then found a far higher gear immediately upon Brady’s return, going 11-1.

The Patriots’ offense took an incalculable hit when Rob Gronkowski was lost for the season, as the big tight end is Brady’s favorite target, but they still have Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett, and if they catch a defense sleeping, Chris Hogan is a viable deep threat. If that was not enough, LeGarrette Blount seems to have settled in as the best running back option the team has had in the Brady era since at least Corey Dillon, and probably ever. Blount set a franchise record with 18 rushing touchdowns and is the type of back that simply wears out an opponent’s front seven, which is music to Brady’s ears as it gives him more time in the pocket to go through his various options.

On defense, the Patriots allowed an N.F.L.-low 15.6 points a game despite trading two of the team’s most recognizable and accomplished defenders in Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins. They succeed as a team, rather than having any individuals (other than Malcolm Butler) stand out, and will probably be tested by Pittsburgh’s offense, provided Roethlisberger is at full-strength.

If it feels as if these teams are always in the conference championship game, there is some truth to that. In Roethlisberger’s 13 seasons, his team has made the A.F.C. championship five times, which is nothing compared with Brady, who has made it 11 times in 16 seasons (including the last six), with one of the five times the team failed to qualify coming in the season in which he did not return after being injured in Week 1.

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