Originally posted on NESN.com  |  Last updated 1/13/13
8 a.m. ET: The Falcons like it when Matty Ice is cool under pressure. They just wish he’d start heating up come playoff time. If Atlanta is ever going to get over the hump, this would be the time. In five seasons under coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have gone 56-24 and made it to the playoffs four times, including twice as the No. 1 seed. But Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ many offensive and defensive weapons have flopped when it matters most, failing not only to win but also to even show up several times. That all can change Sunday after a season that was among one of the Falcons’ more consistent years. Atlanta went 13-3, starting the season with eight straight wins and only dropping in-division contests. Behind Ryan, the team had the sixth-best offense in the league (281.8 yards per game), although a weak defense (23rd passing defense, 20th rushing defense) and rushing attack (29th in the NFL) has been a cause for concern. The Falcons also have the veteran presence of tight end Tony Gonzalez, whose impending retirement — a la Ray Lewis — could be a motivator in this contest. He had 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight touchdowns this year, while the receiving tandem of Roddy White and Julio Jones combined for 171 catches, 2,549 yards and 17 scores. Execution has to start with Ryan, who is the unquestioned leader of the team and the main factor in determining Atlanta’s success. Ryan has had a sharp year, completing 68.6 percent of his passes (tied with Peyton Manning for tops in the NFL). He also posted career highs of 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns this year. But, as Manning showed so well Saturday afternoon, regular-season MVPs do not guarantee playoff success. To advance in the cold months, teams need a balanced attack and a mental toughness, and that’s where Atlanta’s biggest test will come — not only because of the Falcons’ former struggles, but also because of their unique opponent. The Seahawks are the little birds that could in the AFC West. What began as a season that looked like it would only survive on coach Pete Carroll’s gusto has turned into a shakeup of the NFC’s power structure. Quarterback Russell Wilson has proved himself a draft steal, challenging Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck for Rookie of the Year honors. (He had 26 touchdown passes this season, tying the rookie record.) Running back Marshawn Lynch has proven himself to be dangerous and reliable, with the Seahawks’ attack proving to be unstoppable over the last four games of the season, when Seattle racked up 170 points, much of them thanks to the third-best rushing attack in the league. Where the Seahawks’ real strength lies, though, is on defense. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner have been the two biggest pieces in a pass defense that is as stingy (sixth best in the league) as it is dangerous. Both players can be counted on to strengthen a unit that has held this team together against some of the best offenses in the league. The Falcons may be due to finally break through after several years of persistent work, but the NFL does not hand out wins for aggregate effort. The Seahawks have shown up this season focused on taking what is theirs, and the playoff rewards could very well skip Atlanta and come to Seattle if the Seahawks’ defense plays true to form and Ryan struggles early in leading the Falcons’ attack. Whatever happens, though, it’s sure to be an entertaining affair. Carroll provides amusement every game, and Sherman has found plenty of ways to get under opponents’ skin. The Falcons, meanwhile, have the gaudy stats and pedigree — but a painful inability to cash it in for playoff success. Check back here before the game for news and updates, then follow us when the game kicks off at 1 p.m. This one is sure to continue what has been a great weekend of football. Photo via Facebook/AtlantaFalcons/Seahawks

This article first appeared on NESN.com and was syndicated with permission.

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