NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons

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Road-tested Seahawks looking to add to Falcons’ recent playoff woes

<p> NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons</p>

The Seattle Seahawks bring their road show to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC Divisional Playoff showdown that kicks off Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. In beating Washington 24-14 in last Sunday’s Wild Card matchup, the Seahawks have already accomplished something the Falcons haven’t since 2004 – win a postseason game. The Falcons, champions of the NFC South and who tied the Broncos with 13 wins in the regular season are no stranger to having success in the months of September through December. In five seasons under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons are 56-24 overall. The problem has been when the calendar turns to January, as they are 0-3 in the playoffs. In its last two playoff losses alone, Atlanta has been out-scored 72-23, including a 48-21 home loss to Green Bay in the Divisional round two seasons ago.

When the Seattle Seahawks have the ball:
After struggling out of the game somewhat last week against Washington, Seattle’s offense stuck to the script it has followed all season long in its Wild Card win over the Redskins – run the ball early and often and take shots down the field when they become available. The Seahawks finished with the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense in the regular season, a ground game that averaged more than 161 yards per game. The offense took it to another level last Sunday, gashing the Redskins for 224 yards on the ground, led by running back Marshawn Lynch’s 132. Lynch was third in the NFL in rushing yards during the regular season with 1,590, and for his career is averaging more than six yards per carry in postseason play. Lynch hasn’t done it alone, however, as rookie starting quarterback Russell Wilson’s steady, productive play has thrust him to the forefront of the Offensive Rookie of the Year discussion. Even though Wilson averaged fewer than 200 yards passing per game in the regular season, he tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 26 touchdown passes and threw just three interceptions over the final nine games. His stretch of solid play continued last week, as he completed 15-of-26 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for another 67 in winning his first career playoff game and doing so on the road. The Seahawks’ pass-catchers don’t match up to the talent and production of the Falcons’, but they get the job done, as wide receivers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate each recorded seven touchdown catches during the regular season. Wilson’s mobility in the pocket takes some of the pressure off of the offensive line in pass protection, and as a team the Seahawks have committed only 19 turnovers in 17 games. One possible area of concern for the Seahawks’ offense is at kicker. Steven Hauschka, who made all 23 of his field goal attempts from inside 50 yards this season, suffered a calf injury in last week’s game and was placed on injured reserve. The team signed Ryan Longwell to take Hauschka’s place. Longwell is a 15-year veteran who has plenty of postseason experience (17 of 23 on FGs in the playoffs), but his last kick in an NFL game came in 2011.

Atlanta’s defense struggled at times stopping opponents from gaining yards, but managed more often than not to keep them from scoring too many points. The Falcons were 24th in total defense in the regular season, allowing 365.6 yards per game, but were fifth in scoring defense at 18.7 points per game. They were 21st against the run (123.2 ypg), and will need to be at their run-stuffing best if they want to try and slow down Lynch and the rest of the Seahawks. The Falcons fared worse against the pass (242.4 ypg, 23rd), but Seattle isn’t a team that tries to beat you through the air that much and the first-round bye provided several members of the Falcons’ banged up secondary the time needed to rest and recuperate. The Falcons have relied much more on turnovers this season rather than sacks, as the defense has struggled to generate consistent pressure. The unit has produced just 29 sacks so far, the second-fewest among NFC teams, compared to 31 turnovers. Twenty of their takeaways have been interceptions, as Thomas DeCoud, Asante Samuel and William Moore have combined for 15 picks. Atlanta’s pass rush could be even less fearsome against Seattle if veteran John Abraham is sidelined by an ankle injury. Abraham leads the team with 10 sacks, but is listed as questionable for Sunday, although he did practice on a limited basis.

When the Atlanta Falcons have the ball:
Atlanta’s offense finished eighth in the NFL in total offense with 369.1 yards per game and seventh in scoring at 26.2 points per contest. Quarterback Matt Ryan posted career highs across the board, tying Peyton Manning for the league lead in completion rate (68.6), while finishing fifth in both yards passing (4,719) and touchdowns (32). The next step Ryan needs to take in his development is show that he can get the job done in the postseason. In three career playoff games, Ryan has averaged less than 195 yards passing per game and has thrown more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (3), which are all reasons why he’s still looking for his first postseason victory. A fair amount of credit for Ryan’s success this season needs to be given to the weapons he has to work with. Tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Julio Jones both earned Pro Bowl invites along with Ryan, while wideout Roddy White posted his sixth straight 1,100-yard campaign. Together the trio combined for 264 receptions, 3,479 yards and 25 touchdowns during the regular season. Watching them work against Seattle’s secondary and linebackers will not only be entertaining, but also one of the keys to this game. Atlanta has become more of a pass-oriented offense, as the Falcons finished 29th in rushing offense with less than 88 yards rushing per game. The Falcons will need to run the ball some to keep the Seahawks honest, and this task will fall to running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. The duo has combined to average less than four yards per carry, although Turner does have 10 rushing touchdowns. Rodgers also can be dangerous out of the backfield as a receiver, as he’s tied for fourth on the team with 59 catches. Considering Ryan attempted the sixth-most passes of any quarterback, the Falcons’ offensive line did a nice job protecting him, giving up just 28 sacks. And while Ryan did throw 14 interceptions, the Falcons only lost four fumbles for a total of 18 turnovers in their first 16 games.

After staking Washington to an early 14-0 first quarter lead in last Sunday’s Wild Card game, the Seattle defense rose to the occasion, shutting the Redskins’ offense completely down the rest of the way. Washington finished with only 203 yards, which was more than 100 yards below the Seahawks’ regular-season average (306.2 ypg). During the regular season, the Seahawks were the stingiest defense in the NFL, giving up 15.3 points per game and ended up in the top 10 in total defense (fourth), passing defense (sixth) and rushing defense (10th). This unit has allowed a total of 25 offensive touchdowns in 17 games and is capable of getting pressure on the quarterback as well as creating turnovers. The Seahawks sacked Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III twice and picked him off once in last week’s win, but the victory didn’t come without a cost. Defensive end Chris Clemons, who leads the team with 11.5 sacks, tore his ACL and is done for the season. The Seahawks’ depth along the defensive line will be tested with more inexperienced players, such as rookie Bruce Irvin, being called upon to fill bigger roles than they were asked to during the regular season. The Seahawks do have one of the NFL’s biggest, most physical secondaries, one that will face its own tall order in trying to slow down the Falcons’ talented pass-catchers. The Seahawks have given up a total of 16 touchdown passes this season, including their Wild Card win, so this should be a fun matchup to watch.

Key Factor:
Seattle has won six games in a row and eight out of its last nine and the Seahawks have already shown they can win on the road in the playoffs. In fact, all of the pressure for this game is squarely on Atlanta, who is trying to get its own playoff monkey off its back and silence critics in the process by winning its first playoff game since 2004. Michael Vick was the quarterback then, and his successor, Matt Ryan, is 0-3 in the postseason and has yet to put together a decent playoff performance. Questions and doubts aside, Ryan is clearly a different quarterback when he’s in the Georgia Dome. He is 33-6 in his career at home, including a disappointing playoff loss to Green Bay two seasons ago. The Falcons have been preparing for this game ever since Week 1 and I expect this veteran team to not let this opportunity pass them by. All that stands between them and a trip to the Super Bowl is two more home victories, and that road starts by taking care of business and some history against the Seahawks. As much attention as Ryan’s lack of success in the playoffs has garnered, his teammate Tony Gonzalez has been waiting for a postseason victory considerably longer. In his 16-year career, the future Hall of Fame tight end has played in 254 games and has gone 0-5 in the playoffs. Gonzalez' personal postseason drought, if you will, is the longest of any active player. That changes on Sunday, as the Falcons produce enough offense and get a helping hand from the defense in the fourth quarter to put an end to both Gonzalez’ and Ryan’s playoff losing streaks.

Prediction: Falcons 24, Seahawks 20

Related:

NFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Baltimore Ravens vs. Denver Broncos
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview and Prediction: Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots

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