It’s rematch time in the NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs as the Seattle Seahawks will head to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons. These two clubs met earlier this season back in Week 6 at CenturyLink Field with the Seahawks winning a 26-24 thriller.
Seattle comes into this matchup with the Falcons with some much-needed momentum as they used a power-running game to eliminate the Detroit Lions in the NFC Wild Card Game 26-6 last Saturday night. Thomas Rawls ran for franchise postseason-record 161 yards on 27 carries with one touchdown. This effectiveness on the ground set the tone for the play-action passing game, which opened up for Russell Wilson as the game went along. Doug Baldwin came up big for the Seahawks along with Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham as they all made very timely catches that kept the Detroit defense on its heels. It will be very interesting to see if Seattle can take this type of performance on the road, as Pete Carroll’s team was just 3-4-1 away from home this season.
Atlanta is the No. 2 seed in the NFC after winning the South by two games over Tampa Bay. The Falcons under head coach (and former Seattle defensive coordinator) Dan Quinn are a mirror image of the Seahawks – a fiercely competitive team that can change a game instantly through explosive plays. Atlanta was the NFL’s top scoring offense at 33.8 points per game led by an MVP-caliber season from quarterback Matt Ryan, who has thrown for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman’s efficiency running the ball set up the passing game, led by Julio Jones, as defenses were kept off balance and had to pick their poison – load up the box or focus on stopping Jones and the other pass catchers?
NFC Divisional Playoff: Seattle at Atlanta
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 14 at 4:35 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Falcons -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Falcons’ offensive line vs. Seahawks’ defensive line
The signing of Alex Mack by Atlanta in the offseason to take over at center could go down as one of the Falcons’ best moves in some time. A four-time Pro Bowler, Mack’s consistency and rock-solid performance has rubbed off on his fellow linemen, as Atlanta’s improvement up front is a big reason for the offense’s success this season. For Seattle, the trio of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark is going to have to find a way to pressure Matt Ryan from the opening snap. The Seahawks don’t necessarily have to rack up five or six sacks, but they do have to get Ryan off of his spot, disrupt his rhythm and force him to get rid of the football earlier than he wants to. Seattle’s line also will have to do its job against the Falcons’ running game, which was fifth in the league at 120.5 rushing yards per game. If Atlanta can stay balanced on offense and control the line of scrimmage this game will get out of hand quickly.
2. Seattle passing attack vs. Atlanta’s defense
Simply put, Russell Wilson will have plays out there in the passing game available to be made against the Falcons’ secondary. Wilson completed 23 of 30 pass attempts for 224 yards and two touchdowns last week against Detroit. It is going to take that type of performance and then some this week, as the Seahawks will need to score points to keep up with the Falcons’ potent offense. Look for Wilson to get the ball in Doug Baldwin’s hands early and often after the two connected 11 times for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Lions. Jimmy Graham should see plenty of time split out wide in an attempt to create mismatches against linebackers and nickel cornerbacks. It will be very important for Seattle to avoid a catastrophic turnover early and gain some confidence with big plays in the passing game.
3. Julio Jones vs. Richard Sherman
In the first matchup in Week 6, Jones finished with seven receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown in the 26-24 loss in Seattle. Even though the two All-Pros weren’t matched up against each other all of the time, Jones was able to win a few of the one-on-one battles against Sherman. Last week, Sherman stayed primarily on the left side of the field for the majority of the game and did not follow a specific receiver. This move by Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard paid off nicely as Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford completed just 18 of his 32 attempts for 205 yards and no touchdowns. However, Seattle’s secondary figures to have a tougher time this game against Atlanta’s passing attack with safety Earl Thomas sidelined due to a leg injury. This could force Richard to have Sherman shadow Jones. If this happens, these one-on-one matchups should be well worth the price of admission alone. How the officials call the game in terms of illegal contact and pass interference early on could dictate how this one plays out. Falcon fans no doubt still remember the non-call against Sherman when he was covering Jones in the first meeting, a result that had a big hand in that game’s outcome.
All signs look to this game being another heavyweight fight as both offenses should be able to have their fair share of success scoring points if they take care of the football. Seattle historically has had its issues getting off to good starts on the road in playoff games and have had is share of issues away from this season. If Russell Wilson can avoid the early pick-six like he threw last year in the divisional round in Carolina then this game will be in the balance in the fourth quarter. For Matt Ryan, he needs to put his playoff struggles in the rear-view mirror, run the offense the way he has throughout this season, and take advantage of playing at home. Will the Atlanta’s balanced offense be too much for the Seahawks to overcome or will Seattle’s playoff experience produce the first road victory of these playoffs?
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and writes for College Sports Madness, covering college football, basketball, softball and baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottWhittum.