The Green Bay Packers learned an important lesson coming away from their Week 13 regular season loss to the Atlanta Falcons. They have to take advantage of every possession, especially in the red zone, because any opportunity to possess the football might be few and far between.
"We had, what was it nine possessions in the first game but really two of them were a kneel-down and the last play of the game," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "So we really only had seven possessions in that game. That’s something that we’re focused on.
"[Atlanta does] a great job of sustaining drives. Their time of possession is definitely something that is a positive for their offense. Their defense, once again, doesn’t give up the big play. They make you go the long distance. It’s important for us to take advantage of every possession and get points out of these possessions."
Atlanta has a ball-control offense that revolves around bruising running back Michael Turner who ranked third in the NFL with 1,371 yards this season.
For one, their success on the ground grinds valuable minutes off the clock. And two, their success running the ball on first and second down leaves quarterback Matt Ryan in manageable down-and-distance situations that put him in position to flourish as well.
One of Ryan's best attributes is that he protects the ball. Because Atlanta can rely upon running the ball, Ryan hasn't been forced to be a game-changer, and he's responded by keeping his interceptions to single digits (9) this season.
So when the Packer offense is able to get the ball into the red zone this upcoming Sunday, they better convert. Because they didn't do a good enough job at it the first time around.
"Kind of the same thing we talked about the last time we played them, and that's third-down conversions and red zone, getting touchdowns," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "And we didn't do that last time. We weren't good on third down, and in the red zone, I think we had 17 points in four possessions I believe. That's just not going to cut it against a good team like this."
The Packers had a 50% touchdown rate in Atlanta, scoring touchdowns on two of their four red zone possessions – a touchdown on a quarterback sneak by Rodgers and a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson. The other two trips inside Atlanta's 20 were rather forgettable.
"We came away with one field goal and then one turnover on the other," said Nelson. "And it's huge. Personally I believe it cost us the game. Obviously they won on a last second field goal."
On the possession the Packers came away with a Mason Crosby 22-yard field goal, they had the ball on Atlanta's four-yard line in a third-and-1 situation. Running back Dimitri Nance ran up left guard for no gain, and the Packers settled for three.
On their other unsuccessful red zone possession, the Packers had the ball on Atlanta's one-yard line with third-and-1 to go. Rodgers tried sneaking it in but fumbled, and the Falcons recovered.
Nelson knows that's got to change if the Packers are going to steal a victory on the road this weekend.
"If we get some long drives, convert on third downs, what we need to do to keep the chains moving," said Nelson. "And when we get into the red zone, we have to get a touchdown, score seven. We know we're going to be limited on possessions, just the way we play, obviously we experienced that a few weeks ago. We know we're going to be limited on possessions, and we've got to make the most of them."
On the season, the Packers were a top-ten team in red zone production. They scored a touchdown in 32 of 53 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line this season, a 60.4% touchdown rate that ranked no. 6 in the NFL.
Although, the Packers have been getting hotter as of late. In must must-win game Week 16 against the New York Giants, they converted on 5-of-6 red zone possessions, their best percentage (83.3%) of the regular season.
They then turned it up a notch last week in Philadelphia when they scored a touchdown all three times inside the Eagles' 20, albeit against the worst red zone defense in the entire NFL.
"We need touchdowns, period," said Nelson. "We did at Philly, came away with three touchdowns. Three for three, that's big."
The stakes have been raised this weekend, however, a no. 6 seed taking on a no. 1. It's a situation in which Rodgers thinks his teammates will respond.
"You need to just realize that it's the playoffs and each possession has to have more importance and significance," said Rodgers. "But there's an urgency level that picks up, I think for all the guys, knowing what we're playing for."
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