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By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Potentate of Pigskin

The 4-0 Packers visit the 2-2 Falcons Sunday night in a rematch of an NFC divisional playoff game last year that opened the football world’s eyes to the up-and-coming – and now universally recognized – greatness of Aaron Rodgers. The 48-21 blowout of the No. 1-seed 13-3 Falcons also proved that the No. 6-seed 10-6 Packers were a legit Super Bowl threat.

Here are three Cold, Hard Football Facts you need to know about Green Bay-Atlanta before kickoff:

1. The Packers prove that a successful running game is irrelevant in the NFL

It’s sad – truly sad – how many football fans and pigskin “pundits” continue to insist that you need to “establish the run” to win in the NFL. 

Watch any football preview show and we can all but guarantee that some connected but truly clueless NFL “insider” will expound upon the importance of the run.
They often take it one step further, too, insisting that you need to run the ball late in the season and in the playoffs, especially in cold-weather climates.
This ignorance is so ingrained into the culture of the sport that it takes the razor-sharp gridiron Ginsu called the Cold, Hard Football Facts to chop it up into tiny, insignificant pieces.
There is no colder-weather climate in the NFL than the one in Green Bay. And there is no team in history to better prove that this tired old piece of conventional wisdom is complete B.S. 
Consider the case of the 2010 Packers. They were terrible running the ball on offense and terrible stopping the run on defense.
  • Green Bay averaged just 3.81 YPA on the ground last year: 24 teams were better.
  • Green Bay was even worse on run defense, surrendering 4.64 YPA on the ground: 27 teams were better.
Yet the 2010 Packers won the Super Bowl. And they won the Super Bowl for the very same reason almost every team since 1940 has won a championship: because they passed the ball better than their opponents, regardless of how well or how poorly they ran the ball.
Here’s how the 2010 Packers finished the season in three critical Cold, Hard Football Facts Quality Stats:
In other words, the 2010 Packers were the best team in football not because they ran well – they didn’t, they ran poorly – but because they dominated the passing lanes on both sides of the ball.
Do NOT fall into the trap of believing that it’s a recent phenomenon that championships are won by great passing teams. It is not a recent phenomenon.  The best teams in history, dating all the way back to the dawn of the T-formation in 1940, have always been those teams that dominated the passing lanes.
Look no further than Vince Lombardi’s dynastic Packers of the 1960s for proof. Conventional wisdom is that the Packers won five championships under Lombardi because they dominated on the ground.
This is not true. Lombardi’s Packers won championships because they consistently dominated through the air.
Some of those Packers teams were great on the ground, especially the 1962 Packers. But some were not.  The one constant is that the Packers consistently dominated the skies over NFL battlefields.
The champion Packers of 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 all finished No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential.
So, too, did Brett Favre’s 1996 Super Bowl champs and Aaron Rodgers’ 2010 Super Bowl champs. The 1967 Super Bowl champion Packers are the only exception: they finished No. 3 in Passer Rating Differential.

In fact, as we wrote this season on Sports Illustrated, six Green Bay teams since 1961 have topped the NFL in Passer Rating Differential. All six won championships.
All of this is good news for the 2011 squad and its chances to repeat: Green Bay is once again No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential at +32.2, slightly better than the final number or the 2010 club.

2. Atlanta’s “bold” move for Julio Jones will go down as one of the worst draft-day decisions in history

The Cold, Hard Football Facts introduced what we call the “Shiny Hood Ornament Theory” a few years back.

It’s the theory that great wide receivers are nothing more than shiny hood ornaments on the engines of NFL offenses. These fast, sexy, eye-catching showpieces may look flashy. But the engines of great, championship-winning offenses throughout history have motored down the road just find without them.
The conclusion of the Shiny Hood Ornament Theory is tha elite wide receivers are the LAST thing you need to win championships and that you should only chase one when ALL other pieces to greatness are in place, and even then you should do it only cautiously.

(The 1985 49ers who chased small-school WR Jerry Rice are a perfect example of a team that did it the right way: he was drafted by a Super Bowl-champion 18-1 club that had just dominated record-breaking Dan Marino and the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.)
Our theory was validated in so many ways during the 2010 season that we elevated it to the Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law before the 2011 draft. It is no longer a theory. It is now Man Law.
And what did Falcons management do in the immediate wake of this decision? They ignored Man Law and they went out and wasted FIVE draft picks to move up and grab Julio Jones out of Alabama with the No. 6 overall pick.
We issued Atlanta a grade of D- this year in our 2011 draft report on Sports Illustrated because of this horrible decision. In fact, here’s what we wrote back in May:
“History proves that first-round wideouts have a huge rate of failure in the NFL and that the position is incredibly overvalued by teams, fans and analysts. Sure, the Atlanta passing game struggled at times (19th in Passing Yards Per Attempt). But the biggest statistical needs were on defense: The Falcons were 27th against the run last year, surrendering a porous 4.63 YPA. They drafted only two defenders, neither of whom project to be NFL starters.”

The results have been predictably bad – and our analysis predictably accurate.
The Atlanta offense is NO better getting the ball down field this year than it was last year. In fact, through four games, it’s even worse than last year’s dismal downfield passing attack

Also predictably, the ultra-talented Jones has had a nice season, but one certainly not worth five draft picks: 24 catches, 342 yards, a nice 14.3 YPC average and 0 TD. He's also run the ball once for -9 yards, for those of you keeping score at home.
The key, though, is that he’s had ZERO impact on the passing game, just like we told you he would. Getting the ball down field effectively (as measured by Passing YPA) is one of the keys to NFL success throughout all of NFL history. But it’s powered by great quarterbacks, not by great wide receivers.
Meanwhile, Atlanta still has HUGE problems on defense, problems that they might have addressed with the draft picks wasted on Julio Jones.
The Falcons are No. 28 in Defensive Passing YPA (7.65); 23rd in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating (86.4); and 23rd at forcing Negative Pass Plays (7.64%).
Atlanta could trot out onto the field Jerry Rice, Don Hutson, Randy Moss and Raymond Berry, with Max McGee mixing Gatorade martinis on the sideline – and none of them would have helped the Falcons win games if they still offered one of the league’s worst pass defenses. 

3. Only a victim of “Old Yeller Fever” would insist that BrettFavre is better than Aaron Rodgers

Remember the 1950s Disney yarn, “Old Yeller,” about a pioneer boy and his dog?
Old Yeller was a beloved dog and the best pup on the prairie. There wasn’t a raccoon, a rattlesnake or even a 49er that Old Yeller couldn’t lick. But before long, Old Yeller had outlived his usefulness, he grew sickly and began to throw critical picks in the playoffs.
Old Yeller, you might surmise, is not just a movie. It’s also the Cold, Hard Football Facts’ longtime metaphor for the career arc of former Packers great BrettFavre (always one word).

He used to be the best pup on the pigskin prairie, especially during an unprecedented period of excellence from 1995 to 1997 when he won three straight MVP awards. But before long he became a huge liability, causing his team games and seasons every year from 2001 to 2009.
In the Disney story, 12-year-old Travis had enough sense to pull the trigger and put Old Yeller out of his misery.
In the NFL, fans and GMs are not quite as smart as little Travis. They continued to insist that BrettFavre was the same prolific pup of old, even as he pulled out more gaffes than a swordfish captain.
We call this affliction “Old Yeller Fever” – the erroneous belief that BrettFavre was still one of the best pups on the pigskin prairie when the evidence told you otherwise. The disease can be traced to a remote Great Lakes outpost called Green Bay.

But it soon spread to New York and Minnesota, where fans snapped up No. 4 jerseys and delusions of grandeur in record numbers, under the laughably misguided assumption that BrettFavre was the only thing that stood between them and Super Bowl success.
This fantasy had disastrous results for fans in both cities as, predictably, critical BrettFavre interceptions down the stretch (Jets) and in the NFC title game (Vikings) led to disastrous finishes for both teams.
We were always shocked by the reaction that Favre generated among Packers fans, ESPN reporters and others around the country who were devoid of the antidote of hype called the Cold, Hard Football Facts. He was clearly a liability. He was clearly responsible for some of the worst big-game gaffes in history. And he hijacked his own team’s playoff hopes year after year.
And yet fans and GMs still bought the old ESPN party line – that BrettFavre was a “gunslinger” who “loved the game” and was “just having fun out there.”
At least Green Bay had the good sense to inoculate itself from Old Yeller Fever. The Packers drafted a promising young quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) with its first pick in 2005, even if he bided his time for three seasons behind the aging, mistake-prone “gunslinger.”
Fast forward to 2011: those two quarterbacks were back in the news this week, with BrettFavre commenting on Rodgers’ success and  Rodgers’ commenting on the comments and the media commenting on the comments about the comments and – well, you know how the rest of the sports media works these days: All soap opera, little substance.
If you require substance, it should be noted that Rodgers is already a much better quarterback than Old Yeller ever was. Hell, let’s size up Old Yeller’s three straight MVP seasons (1995-97) to Rodgers’ first three seasons as an NFL starter (2008-10).
Old Yeller’s Three Straight MVP Seasons (1995-97)
Year Comp Att Pct. Yards YPA TD INT Rating
1995 359 570 63 4413 7.74 38 13 99.5
1996 325 543 59.9 3899 7.18 39 13 95.8
1997 304 513 59.3 3867 7.54 35 16 92.6
Total 988 1626 60.8 12179 7.49 112 42 96.1

Aaron Rodgers (first three years as NFL starter)
Year Comp Att Pct Yards YPA TD INT Rating
2008 341 536 63.6 4038 7.53 28 13 93.8
2009 350 541 64.7 4434 8.2 30 7 103.2
2010 312 475 65.7 3922 8.26 28 11 101.2
Total 1003 1552 64.6 12394 7.99 86 31 99.36

Old Yeller’s performance was incredible over those three years. But Rodgers’ has been even more prolific in just his first three seasons as an NFL starter. Rodgers boasts:
  • Fewer attempts
  • More completions
  • Better accuracy
  • Higher TD-INT ratio (2.8 to 2.7)
Old Yeller was never as good after those three seasons, save for a statistically anomalous performance with the Vikings in 2009 that ended in nut-kicking disaster.
Rodgers, meanwhile, has taken the position of quarterbacking to a whole new level: through four games of 2011 he’s completed 73.0 percent of his passes with a 124.6 passer rating – putting him on pace to set records in both categories.
And he’s already the most efficient passer in the history of the game: Rodgers boasts the highest passer rating in regular-season history (100.5) and in postseason history (112.6). His TD-INT ratio (2.9 to 1) is also easily the best of all time , well ahead of No. 2 Tom Brady.
And imagine, this guy was sitting on the bench behind rabid Old Yeller for three seasons.
Atlanta already has already witnessed Rodgers’ historic productivity. Rodgers absolutely torched them last season in the divisional playoffs:
  • 31 of 36 (86.1%), 366 yards, 10.2 YPA, 3 TD 0 INT, 136.8 rating
Rodgers added another touchdown on the ground, while the Packers rolled to a 48-21 victory in Atlanta.
Cold, Hard Football Facts readers were already aware that the Packers were a Super Bowl-caliber team, despite their humble 10-6 record: they were No. 1 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings, No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating and No. 1 in Passer Rating Differential, each a critical measure of likely Super Bowl success.
But for the rest of the world, that victory was something of a national coming out party for Rodgers and the Packers.  
Rodgers’ productivity is real bad news for Atlanta, which fields one of the worst pass defenses in football. As noted above, the Falcons rank No. 28 in Defensive Passing YPA (7.65); 23rd in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating (86.4); and 23rd at forcing Negative Pass Plays (7.64%).
Expect a huge night from Rodgers – and expect the few remaining victims of Old Yeller Fever to continue to curl up and die. 

The Statistical Clash You Need to Follow: Matt Ryan vs. Packers Pass D

The Packers were the best team in football last year because they combined a prolific quarterback with the best pass defense in football: Green Bay was No. 1 in Defensive Passer Rating in 2010 (67.2), the most important indicator on defense other than points allowed. 

Green Bay also led the league in forcing Negative Pass Plays, according to our all-powerful Defensive Hog Index: 12.2 percent of opponent dropbacks last year ended in a sack or INT.
That Green Bay pass defense has declined noticeably this year from its Super Bowl form of last year.

The Packers, through four games, have dropped all the way to No. 18 in Defensive Passer Rating (88.6), more than 21 points worse than last year. They’re still good forcing Negative Pass Plays (10.9%), but not as good as last year.
And perhaps of greatest concern for Green Bay fans, the Pack D is 29th in Defensive Passing YPA: opponents are ripping off 7.7 yards every time they drop back to pass (and, remember, of formula adjusts for sacks). That’s a damaging number.
It’s particularly bad news considering that Green Bay has faced a questionable collection of QBs after beating Drew Brees in Week 1 (Cam “I’m Still a Rookie” Newton; Jay “Somebody F*ckin’ Block for Me” Cutler; and Kyle “Tim Tebow’s Seat Warmer” Orton).
But it’s all very good news for Matt Ryan: the under-achieving quarterback has consistently struggled to get the ball downfield in his career. As we noted, Atlanta is just 23rd this year in Passing YPA.
He MUST improve that number – he must try to keep pace with the record-setting Rodgers – if the Falcons have any hope of competing Sunday night.
And that task looks like it will be much easier this year than it was last year.

The Pick

The NFL is a simple game: teams that pass the ball better than their opponents win almost every time. Sure, there is the rare team that can consistently dominate on the ground – in the Big 10. Certainly not in the NFL.
And Atlanta is certainly not equipped to run so effectively that they’ll outpace the performance of  the Green Bay passing attack.
And, while the Packers pass defense is vulnerable, so, too, is Atlanta's pass defense. It’s hard to picture a scenario in which Ryan can suddenly find a passing game so prolific that he can keep pace with the record-setting Rodgers.  

Pick: Green Bay 34, Atlanta 24

Season record: 4-0
Week 1 pick: Detroit 24, Tampa 20
Week 1 result: Detroit 27, Tampa 20
Week 2 pick:New England 27, San Diego 24
Week 2 result: New England 35, San Diego 21
Week 3 pick:New Orleans 30, Houston 23
Week 3 result: New Orleans 40, Houston 33
Week 4 pick: Detroit 26, Dallas 24
Week 4 result: Detroit 34, Dallas 30