Sunday's matchup of the Falcons and the Super Bowl champs will be Atlanta's eighth primetime, nationally-televised night game under head coach Mike Smith.
Any Sunday night game is a big deal because it's the only game on for a nation of avid football fans to watch after a full day of the sport. This week, you're sure to hear that it's a rematch of last season's loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. The extra storylines aside, players loving performing in front of the biggest audiences they can find.
"We're ready to go," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said Wednesday. "I think guys are excited. It's a big game. We'll be right in your living room. Guys are looking forward to this one. We're looking forward to going out there and putting on a good show."
Playing in those games has a certain type of aura and players recognize that. They know their high school buddies whom they no longer keep in touch with will be watching the game. Their old college teammates will tune in. Everyone in their home town will have the game turned to a nationally televised game.
It's a big stage and it requires a certain level of detachment, something you develop over time. Quarterback Matt Ryan has found himself on these stages a few times and has learned how to prepare mentally to block out all the extra intangibles and mystique.
"You're no different than anybody else when you come into it," Ryan said. "You've watched Sunday Night Football, you've watched Monday Night Football your entire life. The more experience you have in playing in those type of situations, the more you get used to it. Having done it a number of times at this point I feel a lot more comfortable handling those types of environments."
Viewers will hear all about the rematch factor on Sunday night. For the Falcons, this game has little to do with last year's playoff loss. What's done is done and as they've always demonstrated, they move on from things. They weren't proud of their output that evening, but dwelling on it solves little. Putting extra emphasis on a regular season game doesn't either.
"This is a new team, new year," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "You can't base anything off last year. We went 13-3 last year. We're 2-2 right now. We're just going into this game with the mindset to learn from the mistakes and go out and play as a team."
Green Bay's streak of wins is at 10, extending back to last season. They'll enter the Georgia Dome remembering the last time they were here and the offensive outburst they had. The Falcons understand the confidence of the opponent they're dealing with.
"It is what it is," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "We know they're flying high right now. We know we have to match their intensity when they come in. They're going to be a confident team, a team that's playing very well these past four weeks. We have to come in and defend our dome and match their intensity."
From the midpoint of last season to now, this will be the third time the two teams have faced off. Atlanta won 2010's regular season matchup. DeCoud said one of their top priorities will be to correct some of the mistakes they made in the playoff loss. He said the defense knows Packers QB Aaron Rodgers will try to attack the issues they presented the last time out.
At 2-2 and past the quarter-mark of the season, Atlanta knows it's time to start winning regularly and put themselves back on the mantle as one of the teams to beat in the NFC. There's no better place to exert that confidence than against Sunday night's opponent.
"(The locker room's) a mood of getting to business," DeCoud said. "It's time to hunker down. This is a great team. It's the defending champions, so we have to make sure we get that business handled on Sunday night."
Still, the most important game is the next game and that's why it's a must-win for the Falcons. There's no talk of revenge or returning favors here. To win on Sunday they're going to go out with the same attitude that got them to 13-3 and have helped them tread water through some early struggles this season.
"Personally, I'm not going to play harder than I have all season," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "I don't care who we're playing. I want to leave an impression on that defense that we're one of the best offenses in the league. I'd like to think we can get that accomplished this week."
Take It To Them:The Falcons want some folks to remember that they have an offense, too — one that is capable of putting numbers on the board. They're not comparing themselves to Air Rodgers and Co. but they like what they bring to the table, as well.
They admit, however, they're not scoring as much as they'd like and thus probably don't have the wins necessary to get the recognition they think will come.
"I think we've been able to move the ball up and down the field this year," Gonzalez said. "We'd like to put more touchdowns on the board. That's what you've got to do against this defense, you've got to put points on the board and not just field goals. We're up to the challenge. Aaron Rodgers is playing out of his mind again. They're moving the ball. We were looking at their game breakers. They've got like six of them. That's the most I've seen since I've been here. It's going to be tough, but we're up to the challenge. They're the Super Bowl champs. I think this will be a good gauge to see how good of a team we are."
Green Bay's defense is Super Bowl caliber, too, but they've shown some weakness this season against the pass. Despite that weakness, they're still among the leaders of the league in interceptions, a stat that says they'll give you some but if you make a mistake they'll capitalize.
Pro Bowlers Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson lead a Packers defense that can do a lot of things, not unlike their offense. Matthews is the sack-maker, but Woodson is the leader of the unit and its top playmaker. Already this season the cornerback has four pass deflections, three interceptions and one touchdown. The versatile ways Green Bay uses him makes him especially dangerous. He mans the outside and the inside slot corner at times, but can also blitz from a linebacker's spot as well.
"He's still playing at a high level, a really high level," Ryan said. "He's really good outside and I think he's even better when he slides in because he can do more things. He's a really good pass rusher. He gets in their blitz package quite a bit. He's physical, he's good against the run, he's disruptive on slot routes. He tries to jam and create timing issues for quarterbacks and wide receivers so he's a good player."
Still the Packers' 31st ranking in yards allowed on defense says something, but Atlanta will still have to work to do what it does. A lot of the yardage has piled up against Green Bay because opponents were trying to dig out of holes created by the Packers' offense. Atlanta wants their offense to win the game, not blaze the comeback trail.
"It's going to be tough for us to move the ball up the field," Gonzalez said. "We're up for that challenge. I think we know what we can do when we get rolling. We're a really good offense and tough to stop. We've just got to get on that roll and move the ball up and down the field."
Time of possession shakes out to be one of the critical stats in this matchup. Both teams have capable offenses but are somewhat at odds. Green Bay can score in bunches and with quickness. Atlanta can score with the best of them, but prefers a grinding style of balance to burn the clock and team's defenses. The Falcons know they'll need to a little bit of everything on Sunday to not only beat the Packers but keep Rodgers and his men off the field.
"We always have the advantage in being the offense, especially with our no huddle," Gonzalez said. "We can catch them off-guard and keep them on their heels. It's going to come down to making plays. The matchups are going to be there. That's what our coaches do, they put us in the right position to create those matchups. Matt does that through the no huddle. It's going to come down to us making plays and making sure we move the chains. We'll try as much as we can to keep their offense off the field."
Gonzalez' faith in his offense isn't just blind loyalist stuff. He's seen what they can do. He's seen what teams stocked like this one can do. He's seen how effective a dangerous offense in the NFL can be. He expects to score every time on the field and when they don't he wants to know why.
The results never surprise him. According to him, it's rarely what opposing teams are doing.
"Usually when you look at the film it's something we did," he said. "It's not something they did. We have to make sure we're executing and make plays. When the opportunity presents itself you've got to make sure you make that play."
Attack Tackle:It's hard for many Falcons fans to forget the memories of seeing their Falcons defenders failing to bring down Rodgers and the Green Bay playmakers last year in the playoff games. They always seemed to be there but Rodgers would slip from their grasp as if he was coated in Crisco.
The improvement in tackling has been a focus of the Falcons since the season began. They believe they've improved in that fundamental area, but must continue to focus on it since they've seen how a missed tackle here or there can change the outcome of a game. They need to look no further than last January.
"That's one thing we didn't do well in that playoff game if you ask me: tackle those guys in space," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "We know that's our challenge and we're looking forward to it."
With the emphasis of the defense resting solely on Rodgers, the Falcons will need to bring him down when they get their chances. They've gone three weeks without a sack and know leaving Green Bay's quarterback upright in the pocket all day will equal a long day.
"We have a few 'almosts,' " Weatherspoon said. "We're almost there. We just haven't done it. ... It's pretty evident and that's something that we want to focus on this week, trying to get to the quarterback and harass him. If you can do that you stand a better chance than letting him sit back there (like in practice)."
Atlanta is still encouraged by the "almosts" since they're in the right neighborhood. Against Rodgers they've got to finish the delivery.
"We're getting around the quarterback," defensive end Ray Edwards said. "We've got a lot of hits. We've got to get there a little faster, that's all. We've got to get a little better at getting off the guards and tackles a little quicker."
Edwards feels pressure on Rodgers is key and thus even if you're not bringing him down, they want to be hitting him and harassing him. Even more critical is to keep him contained in the pocket and not let him run all over them. The defensive end that spent years facing him as a member of the Minnesota Vikings knows him well and said he felt the quarterback is more elusive than he's given credit for.
Sacking Rodgers and tackling everyone is the summation of the defensive charge for the Falcons.
"They've got a lot of gamebreakers on their team," Weatherspoon said. "You look at their personnel, all their skill guys can take it deep. All of them can make a lot of plays and make guys miss. You've got to go back to your fundamentals. This game always starts with hitting. We've got to make sure we're tackling guys. I think if we tackle well, we'll be fine."
Injury Update:Wednesday saw the return of Jonathan Babineaux and Stephen Nicholas to practice. Babineaux has been out since sustaining a knee injury in Week 1. Nicholas missed the last two games with a calf injury. Coach Smith said he was happy to see them return but remained cautious about their practice reps.
"Big day in terms of both of those guys because I think they're ahead of schedule," Smith said. "We didn't think they'd be back this early. They've done a great job with the rehab. Again, I want caution that it was their first day back so we'll have to see how they respond with the wear and tear with the complete practice. We're really happy that they've gotten back quicker than anticipated."
Cliff Matthews, Roddy White, Michael Palmer and Todd McClure did not practice on Wednesday. Joining Babineaux and Nicholas on the limited participation list were Jason Snelling, William Moore and Chris Owens.
Smith said the last three were expected to be upgraded on Thursday.
Did not practice listees for the Packers include tackle Bryan Bulaga, wide receiver Donald Driver, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson.