The appeal of the NFC championship game is obvious and delicious, but the deciding factor may be Samuel L. Jackson.
The MVP-quality shootout between quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers of Green Bay and Matt Ryan of Atlanta may be an historic playoff duel.
Both defenses are generous against the pass, and Rodgers and Ryan will shred them.
But when it comes down to critical factors determining the outcome, nobody’s considering the influence of Jackson.
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Don’t discount him.
The NFC championship will be the final game at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, to be demolished at the tender age of 25 and replaced by the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Dome next door.
The energy in the condemned dome during the recent Falcons’ run of success has been unprecedented, and it felt influential as Atlanta dumped Seattle, 36-20, in the divisional round.
It reached its peak when the image of Jackson came on the big screen. He looked 20-feet tall, and with the backing of a gospel choir, the actor exhorted his favorite team and the fans to “Rise Up.”
Place goes nuts.
Rodgers and the Packers have played in tough places before, including last week’s divisional-round win at Dallas against the top-seeded Cowboys. He won’t be daunted by the noise.
But the effect it has on the Falcons seems obvious, and they’re playing with a style that suits coach Dan Quinn’s trademark: fast and physical.
This home-field energy is part of why the Falcons have been installed as four-point favorites in a battle between red-hot teams, either of which would be an able Super Bowl representative for the NFC.
I’ve seen both of these teams own the Seahawks recently on their home fields. Rodgers and Ryan absolutely tore the Seahawks apart and gobbled them up.
At Lambeau on Dec. 11, Rodgers threw for three touchdowns, with no interceptions, while completing 78 percent of his passes for a stunning 10.70 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 150.8.
Last weekend, Ryan had three TDs and no picks, with 70 percent completions and 10.76 yards per attempt. Ryan had three touchdown passes against the Hawks in their Seattle meeting on Oct. 16.
Both the Packers and Falcons are riding the kind of surges that often lead to the Super Bowl, with Rodgers on a self-declared mission of turning a slow start into an unblemished streak down the stretch, and Ryan seeking the kind of playoff success that could elevate him to the highest strata.
Back when the Packers were 4-6 after four straight defeats, Rodgers was catching grief. Despite the two NFL MVPs on his résumé, the reality was that he had the lowest completion percentage in the league.
He told reporters — in a message obviously intended for his teammates — that he fully expected the Packers to run the table, to win every game from that point. They have.
Rodgers’ outburst of 24 touchdowns and one interception, and his absurd ability for final-act dramatics, have placed him in the discussion for ranking among the coolest, most-lethal late-game quarterbacks ever.
Ryan’s résumé still has some holes, with only two playoff wins (both over Seattle) in his nine seasons.
In this game, though, Ryan likely will have more help than Rodgers since Packers receivers Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison are each dealing with injuries that could sideline or at least slow them.
Ryan’s favored target, Julio Jones, aggravated a foot injury against the Seahawks last weekend, but is expected to play.
It is the Falcons’ running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman that could sway the outcome. The pair combined for rush/receiving yardage of nearly 2,500 yards this season.
Their threats, along with Ryan and Jones, give the Falcons attack a versatility and dimension that the Packers will be sorely challenged to match.
Rodgers can almost single-handedly make this game come down to the end. But I see the Falcons holding on, and the fans beginning an early demolition celebration at the Georgia Dome.