By Chris Cluff
The Atlanta Falcons had the easiest schedule in the NFL this season, which is why they fairly well flew under the radar despite going 13-3 and gaining the top seed in the NFC.
Add in the fact that they are 0-3 in the playoffs with coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, and the pressure is certainly on as they face a red-hot Seattle team in Atlanta on Sunday.
The Falcons lived up to their name, flying through their schedule on the strength of a passing game that was sixth in the league at 282 yards per game.
Ryan completed 68.6 percent of his passes, tying Peyton Manning for the best mark in the NFL, and he threw for a career-best 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions. The Falcons’ star receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones each went over 1,000 yards and combined for 171 catches and 17 touchdowns.
Of course, all of the talk will be about the matchup of White and Jones against Seattle’s physical corner duo of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.
“I think it really will be an exciting matchup to watch,” coach Pete Carroll told reporters. “They’re receivers are so good. And they target the heck out of those guys. I expect our guys to play how they always play. The best pair and pair you can have match up.”
Add future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (team-high 93 catches, 930 yards, eight TDs) and solid No. 3 receiver Harry Douglas and the Falcons pose problems in the passing game.
The Seahawks have the league’s No. 6 passing defense, but they have been prone to being lit up by strong quarterbacks at times. Tom Brady threw for 395 yards and two touchdowns, Matthew Stafford threw for 352 yards and three scores, and Jay Cutler threw for 233 yards and two scores. Brady and Stafford are among the four QBs with more passing yards than Ryan this season, and Brady is one of just four with more TD passes.
The Falcons figure to get their yards through the air, especially if the Hawks continue to have problems rushing the passer. Ryan was sacked just 28 times this season, and Seattle will be without top sacker Chris Clemons.
But that might not be good enough. The Hawks were 2-1 in those games against Brady, Cutler and Stafford, with the latter pulling out the win for the Lions at the very end.
The Falcons do not run the ball well — just 87.3 yards per game, which ranks 29th in the league — and the Hawks were a top-10 run defense, so Atlanta will have to pass to move the ball.
When these teams played last season, the Falcons built a 27-7 lead and then nearly let the Hawks come back to win. The Hawks were down 30-28, and Carroll chose to have Steven Hauschka try a 61-yard field goal with eight seconds left on fourth-and-8.
The Falcons were a lot better on defense last season, especially against the run. In 2011, they ranked sixth at just 97 rushing yards per game. This year they are giving up 123 yards per game.
They are the second-worst team in allowing yards after contact, which does not bode well as they go against Marshawn Lynch, whose “Beast Mode” specialty is breaking tackles.
Much of the Seahawks’ offensive success has been predicated on the zone read option with Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson. They had 110 yards on 11 of those plays against Washington. It will pose a big challenge for Atlanta, which held Lynch to 24 yards rushing last season but has no prayer of doing that against a Seattle running attack that is vastly improved since that game on Oct. 2, 2011. Lynch is coming off a 132-yard outing against Washington and has 11 100-yard games this season.
The Falcons have been outscored 72-23 in their last two playoff games, including a 48-21 home defeat to Green Bay two years ago.
But Smith thinks they are better because of their failures.
“We’re a much more mature team because of our experiences,” Smith told reporters. “I think you learn from your previous experiences in the playoffs. This is a team that has been very focused from the very beginning of the season, and we’ve got a lot of guys who have experienced the playoff atmosphere. They’re going to be able to help some of the younger guys who haven’t.”
The Falcons know it will come down to Ryan putting up enough points against a smoking-hot Seattle team.
“He knows we have to win a playoff game,” White told reporters. “Everybody knows that, and not to put any pressure on him, but I just think that at this point in the season, everybody knows they have to play their best football right now.”
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.