The Seahawks make their second cross-country trip as they take on the top-seeded but much maligned Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta comes into the playoffs as the top seed after an impressive 13-3 campaign earned them a bye last week. They’ll host the Seahawks who started slow last week against the Redskins but were able to overcome a hobbled RG3 to get the win to move on to the Divisional Round.
Seattle comes in riding an incredible surge of momentum winning eight of their last nine games and their last three on the road. The offense has been remade behind their rookie passer Russell Wilson. Wilson has played exceptionally well down the stretch throwing 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions in his last nine games. He doesn’t throw for a ton of yards, but gets what is needed and taking care of the ball. He’s added over 50 yards rushing in four of the team’s last six games including 67 last week.
The rushing attack of the Seahawks has emerged as one of the best in the league and probably the best remaining in the playoffs. Wilson is joined in the backfield by Marshawn Lynch who has been in full beast mode rushing for 100 yards or more in the team’s last five games including a dominating 132 yards and a touchdown last week. As the season has progressed, the ‘Hawks have also done a great job of incorporating fourth-round pick Robert Turbin into the mix as well and he’s provided a nice change-of-pace back when he’s been on the field.
Seattle’s receivers haven’t exactly been piling up yards, but they’ve been efficient and reliable when called upon. Last week, tight end Zach Miller led the team in targets, receptions, and yards. You could see more of Miller this week since the Falcons have allowed 50 yards or more to opposing tight ends in five of their last six and were shredded by Jimmy Graham for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns in week 10. Conversely, the Falcons were one of the best teams shutting down opponent’s wide receivers allowing just one touchdown total to opposing wide-outs in the last seven games and not allowing multiple touchdowns to any opposing receivers all year long.
The bad news for Atlanta fans is that the Seahawks don’t rely on their receivers. Atlanta’s weakness defensively is exactly what the Seahawks excel at. The Falcons finished 20th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game and 24th in rushing touchdowns allowed per game. What’s more disconcerting for the Falcons is that the offense the Seahawks utilize resembles the Panthers who gave the Falcons issues both times they’ve faced off this season. In week 14, Cam Newton ran for 116 yards and a touchdown while throwing for two more and 287 yards in Carolina’s 30-20 victory. While Russell Wilson is not the same player as Cam Newton, the inability to stop a running QB could cost the Falcons this week’s game if they can’t contain Wilson.
The Falcons may have to take on that challenge without defensive end John Abraham who was injured during the final week of the and is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game. Cornerback Dunta Robinson was also injured in that game and is probable for this one. The Falcons defense has proven to be opportunistic and a solid unit overall although they’ve struggled to contain the run at times.
The Seahawks defense will also have a hard time containing the Falcons attack. Atlanta finished seventh in the league in scoring offense, sixth in passing yards per game, and fifth in passing touchdowns per game. The Falcons offensive line did a good job keeping QB Matt Ryan upright finishing eighth in the league in fewest sacks allowed.
Ryan had another great regular season with 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns while throwing just 14 picks. He threw multiple scored in 10 of his 16 games this year while throwing multiple picks just twice. He’s not know for being a mobile passer, but has been able to utilize his weapons in the passing game effectively throughout the year.
He’s well-stocked with receivers with arguably the best 1-2 tandem in the NFL. Roddy White is coming off another great year finishing with 1,351 yards receiving giving him six consecutive seasons with over 1,000. He was joined in the 1,000-yard club by Julio Jones who had 1,198 yards to go with his 10 touchdowns. Jones and White both have the speed to turn any catch into a breakaway touchdown and the size and mentality to go over the middle and make possession plays as well. If defenses focus too much on the outside, Ryan utilizes tight end Tony Gonzalez who had 930 yards and eight touchdowns his highest totals since joining the Falcons in 2009.
The Falcons running game hasn’t put up the big numbers like the passing attack but have been effective nonetheless. Atlanta finished 29th in the league in rushing yards per game averaging just 87.3 yards per game. Michael Turner led the team with 800 yards rushing but was held under 100 yards in 14 of the Falcons 16 games and didn’t have a game with multiple scores although he did finish with 10 touchdowns. Turner shared time in the backfield with Jacquizz Rodgers who showed flashes of playmaking potential at times but never was handed the workload enough to rush for more than 60 yards and only had a pair of touchdowns all year. If the Falcons win, it most likely won’t be because they ran the ball over Seattle–that’s just not who they are.
Stopping the Falcons calls for stopping the passing game. The Seahawks defense will need to get pressure on Ryan while not breaking down in coverage. The strength of their defense is exactly the style of play needed to shut down the Falcons. They bring pressure and leave their corners with the responsibility of covering the opponents receivers. The strategy has worked well for them so far this season. The Seahawks allowed an average of under 200 yards per game passing ranking them third in the NFL. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner will draw the tough task of shutting down White and Jones. If they can do that though, I think the Seahawks have a great shot at winning this game.
The Falcons need their receivers, but that’s the strength of the Seahawks. The Falcons can struggle with their rush defense, and that’s the other strength of Seattle. I do not think the Falcons are not worthy of their #1 seed or that Matt Ryan isn’t able to lead his team to playoff victories. I just think that this is the worst possible matchup for Atlanta and that they could be in real trouble at home and in danger of crashing out of the playoffs early again this year.
The spread is 2 1/2 to three points meaning there is little room for winning without covering. The points aren’t all that vital in this one in my opinion, but I’ll take them in what I expect to be a close, hard-fought victory either way. The first few minutes of this game will be vital for the Falcons to impose their #1-seed-sized will on Seattle and for Seattle to show this is going to be a fight putting all the pressure squarely on the Falcons.