The Packers have a very turbulent relationship with NFC Championship games. If you consider it to be the natural progeny of the old NFL Championship games, like the NFL Record and Fact Book does, we have had great success–winning the most titles before the merger and 3 afterwards. During the pre-Super Bowl years the Packers won this game every 5 years on average. However, since 1970 (pretty much the accepted year for the modern era–skipping the early Super Bowls) they’ve gone 3-3. That record is 5th best in the NFC, albeit tied with the Panthers, Saints, and Cardinals.

The 3 victories rank among the most important wins during this latest 20+ year period of success. Two of those led to Super Bowls–but I don’t need to tell you that. The 3 losses, however, are the worst 3 losses of my life, without much effort. I’ve been over the 2007 Championship game about 500 times since starting this column.  I still haven’t managed to watch the 2014 game again. I just get to “19-to-7” and then somehow I get alcohol poisoning–very bizarre.

I was 6 years old for the other loss, a 1995-96 game in Dallas, which ended  38-27 in favor of the home team. This generation of fans is a bit removed from that era, but the outcome was Holmgren’s Packers got booted by the same team for the third straight year. (Flashbacks to the Harbaugh 49ers anyone?) He lost six straight to them in Irving, Texas and in this game they had gone into the 4th with a lead. He remarked post-game, defeated in a way that only Holmgren can be, “We keep coming down here and getting lessons…I’m tired of getting lessons.” Thankfully, the Cowboys went away and Holmgren won the next year’s match by 3 scores. You know the rest.

But we have never faced the Falcons in a Championship game, no matter what the era. The Falcons are a young team, by our standards, and have only been to 1 Super Bowl – in the 1998-99 season. They were dismantled by Terrell Davis and the Broncos. We know about that. You might also remember that they wilted against a more physical 49ers team in the 2012 NFC Championship before the Niners got kicked out by Joe “Elite” Flacco.

All things considered, this match-up has been a long time coming–even if you were to forget about Green Bay’s demolition of the Georgia Dome in 2010 (more on that later). These two teams have combined to be in 4 out of the last 7 NFC Championship games but have yet to face off. It’s also no small observation that both teams have experienced their fair share of criticism over those years. Underachievement has haunted Matt Ryan in the playoffs his whole career. This is a big deal for him. At the same time the Packers have fielded a couple of championship-caliber teams only to see them die in overtime. It’s been Super Bowl or bust in Titletown for some time now.

To further understand the history between these two star-crossed teams, let’s look at some key playoff games from the past:

(Cue TV flashback filter)

Green Bay Packers vs. Atlanta Falcons

January 4, 2003

Final: GB-7 ATL-27

I can just recall the feeling of despair as the Wildcard Falcons put the hurt on Green Bay in Lambeau Field. It seems crazy, but this was the first time the Packers ever lost a playoff game in Lambeau. There was a mystique that was taken away on this day. And it wasn’t even close. The Packers committed 5 turnovers and scored only once.

Warrick Dunn and the Falcons rushed for 41 of their ridiculous 192 yards on the ground in the game’s first drive. It was 3 plays in to the starting Packer’s possession that Favre threw 1 of his 2 interceptions on the day. The 2nd drive ended in a blocked punt recovered in the end zone for a Falcon’s score. It wasn’t until the 3rd possession that Favre threw his first completion. The possession ended in a missed FG.

There are definitely some crazy stats to come out of this game. For instance: Michael Vick was a 22 year old phenom at the time but he only passed for 117 yards and 1 TD with 64 rushing yards on 10 carries. He completed 13 passes. The Falcons defense held the Packers to 289 total yards. Our YPC was sub-3 yards. The Falcons were not sacked once and even recovered their own fumble. Not to mention they had over a 12 minute advantage in TOP. We were the 3rd seed that year, how could it have gone so wrong? The Packers were 12-4 that year and were thoroughly outclassed by the 6th seeded Falcons. This game is a great example of the excesses of the Sherman era.

Was this the end of the Brett Favre? Of course not, but it kind of felt like it. I guess the point of showing this game is to say: it can get pretty ugly. But it will be hard to get uglier than this.

Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons

January 15, 2011

Final: GB-48 ATL-21

You thought I wasn’t gonna do it, didn’t you? I couldn’t skip this game. And though it feels borderline tacky to celebrate this game in our current situation, it was an absolute fire storm. The Aaron Rodgers we know and love was born on this day. The Packers of 2010 came into this game much more maligned than our current squad, even considering 4-6. Remember, Chicago was on top of the league and seemed prepared to dominate for years to come. We under performed for a portion of the year and many wondered if mediocrity was the new normal after Favre’s departure.

The Falcons went up 14-7 early on a Michael Turner TD and a kickoff return touchdown by Eric Weems. The Packers responded by scoring 35 unanswered points. The floodgates were opened and out poured the touchdowns.

Amazingly, the Packers out-gained the Falcons 442-194 by the final whistle. They were +3 in turnover margin, committed fewer penalties, and were 8-12 on 3rd down. Oh, and they held the ball for almost two-thirds of the game at 38:19 TOP. As much as the previous game was an utter collapse by the home team, this one was worse.

You can’t put it all on the Falcons though, Aaron Rodgers was leading a team coming into its own and playing inspired football. I will not comment on any similarities with the 2010 season and this year because I don’t want to jinx anything and it’s a tired comparison. Of course the Packers want to replicate that every year.

My hope is that this team will replace the 2010 squad as the ultimate gut-check team. There’s a sense that this team can stand on its own. It seems like every year there is some baggage hanging from some previous defeat. And although our season ended last year in much the same way, we were lucky to be there. It’s the same this Sunday. Except it’s us, the fans, who are lucky to be here. Hang on to your butts.

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