Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
Game Day: Sunday 1:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Line: Falcons -2 ½
Series Record: Seattle leads 8-5
Perhaps the least appreciated NFL playoff game in years, this matchup actually boasts more appeal than meets the eye. Atlantas veteran group, in a widely discussed postseason slump, faces a primarily young group in Seattle led by an aging, but rejuvenated, monster in the offensive backfield. This tilt could have all the makings of a clash of opposites, with no clear-cut favorite known.
Seattle enters Sundays contest on a six-game winning streak, including last weeks 24-14 victory at Washington (just please dont call that game Griffin-gate). Quarterback Russell Wilson has become progressively more comfortable, and the Read Option offense seems to help Marshawn Lynch make up for any alleged step he may have lost. However, the surprise for Seattle this year became its top-flight defense, ranked fourth overall. Amazingly, just three teams have scored more than 20 points against the Seahawks.
Atlanta, on the other hands, comes in as perhaps the most negatively viewed 13-3 team in NFL history. Checking Stubhub will show that nearly 5,000 tickets are still being sold on the secondary market for this game, as cheap as 25 dollars. Many will cite the Falcons soft schedule, lack of blowout wins and three-straight postseason losses as reasons that this team will not make a run to the Super Bowl. Add in a lackluster run game and poor defensive performance throughout the season, and these guys are said to be doomed. However, quarterback Matt Ryan continues to pad his resume as a higher-level quarterback. He is capable of leading a shootout, if needed, and touts one of the best fourth-quarter resumes in the game today.
In essence, this game will be decided by the team whose strength wins out.
Falcons Game Plan
Despite being ranked 29th in rushing attack, Atlanta will attempt to properly utilize the tandem of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. While Turner appears to be at the end of his career, he can still be effective between the tackles at times. And Rodgers shows flashes of elusiveness that may allow for a few big plays to set up the pass for Ryan
Meanwhile, Ryan will look to get all of his receivers involved to create big-play opportunities early in the game. Ryan should feel a bit less pressure, as Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons was placed on Injured Reserve this week with a knee injury, suffered last week at Washington. However, if the Seahawks can still manage to penetrate Atlantas offensive line, then Ryan will be forced to settle for short passes and may even need to get a little creative.
On defense, the plan will simply be to contain the Wilson/Lynch running duo as best as possible. Look for Atlantas linebackers to play more of a read-react style in hopes of not giving up large chunks of yardage on the ground. Wilson has proven effective as a thrower of late, but the Falcons will have no choice but to rely on their secondaryand a loud Georgia Dometo thwart Wilsons passing efforts.
Seahawks Game Plan
Head Coach Pete Carroll, a former USC/Pac-12 man, seems to have taken a page out of the SECs playbook this season. Relying on a quick-thinking run game and a sometimes-bend-but-rarely-break defense, Carroll and Seattle have found themselves in position to make a solid postseason run.
Look for more of the same come Sunday. The Seahawks will run the football on offense until the Falcons proven they can stop them. Then, Wilson will look to connect with Sidney Rice and Golden Tate just long enough to back Atlantas defense off of the line of scrimmage. Then, repeat the process. This offense does not have to get any more creative than the Read Option, simply because the Read Option has worked to Wilsons strengths so well.
Facing Atlantas passing attack will prove Seattles toughest test in the game. The Seahawks will need to create a lot of pressure for Ryan, and they will need to do so without the aforementioned Clemons. Expect a few clever wrinkles in their blitz packages to throw off Atlantas checks. And when the Falcons attempt to gain ground yardage, it is of utmost importance for Seattle to ensure Turner, or more importantly Rodgers, do not get to the edge and break off any big runs.
There are so many variables at play in this matchup that an easy pick simply does not exist. Seattle will make its second west-to-east coast trip in as many weeks. Atlantas unconvincing season has been mentioned in this story. Seattle is plagued by injuries (they also lost kicker Steven Hauschka last week). Atlantas inability to stop the run, and the pass, this season comes to mind again.
However, playoff success still typically comes down to the hot hand. The top seeds continue to give way to teams with lesser win totals who streak just before the seasons end. Considering this is what leads to an ultimate decision on this games winner.
Seattles offense will likely give the Falcons defense fits at times, controlling the treasured time of possession. That should be enough to keep Matt Ryan at bay.