By Chris Cluff
For a month now, the Seahawks have been the team no one has really wanted to play. They are a young upstart club that has surprised the league with their development behind rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
The Hawks knocked off Washington 24-14 in the wild-card round, but it could have been much worse. They dominated the final three quarters of that game and missed two easy chances at touchdowns.
They head to Atlanta to face the NFC’s top seed knowing they left a lot of plays on the field offensively and also knowing they have a great chance to set up a rematch with either San Francisco or Green Bay for a shot to go to the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks are very focused on seizing that opportunity, and yet they have none of the pressure that sits heavily on the shoulders of the Falcons, who are 0-3 in the playoffs under coach Mike Smith.
The Seahawks are trying to become just the second West Coast team to win back-to-back playoff games on the East Coast. The 1989 Los Angeles Rams are the only team to have done it.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll told reporters his team is ready to go.
“We had a great week,” Carroll said. “As you can imagine, the guys are really pumped up about it, feeling good and excited to get the preparation under way. They started beautifully Wednesday. Thursday was great. Today (Friday) they were totally in it, like everybody should be. We’ve done what we’ve needed to do, and it feels good. The guys feel great about it.”
Here are the keys to the Hawks winning in Atlanta and setting up a fun NFC title game against one of their rivals.
PRESSURE MATT RYAN
Ryan has been great this season. He 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.
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.
With sack leader Chris Clemons out, the Seahawks will rely on rookie Bruce Irvin to lead the pass rush. But defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is going to have to figure out ways to dial up the pressure on Ryan, who was sacked just 28 times this season.
The Falcons are not a great running team — they rank 29th with just 87.3 yards per game — and probably won’t be able to run it against Seattle. So if the Hawks can find ways to knock Ryan around and throw the passing game off kilter, the Falcons will be done.
CONTAIN JONES AND WHITE
The Falcons’ star receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones combined for 171 catches and 17 touchdowns, each going over 1,000 yards.
Their matchup against Seattle’s big corner duo of Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner is perhaps the most anticipated battle of the entire divisional round.
“I think it really will be an exciting matchup to watch,” 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.”
Jones caught 11 passes for 127 yards in Atlanta’ 30-28 win in Seattle last season. Many of those catches came against Browner. And Browner will be starting just his second game since a four-game layoff. He was shaky to start the game against Washington, but he also brought his trademark physicality — and he will need it against Jones and White.
The Hawks will have to give Browner help over the top or he will get burned, especially by Jones.
RUN WILSON AND LYNCH
Wilson is looking to become the third rookie QB in NFL history to win two playoff games, and he can do it if he and Marshawn Lynch continue to run the ball like they have over the last 6-8 weeks.
The Falcons surrender 123 rushing yards per game and are the second-worst team in allowing yards after contact, which augurs well for Lynch, who makes a living breaking tackles.
The Falcons held Lynch to 24 yards last season, but he has 17 100-yard games in 28 contests since then.
It will be interesting to see if a sprained foot hinders him in this game. If not, he and Wilson should be able to continue their success on the read option, which netted 110 yards against Washington.
If the Hawks can run it like they have been, they also should be able to keep the ball out of Ryan’s hands. Sustained touchdown drives will be a big key for Seattle in this game.
SCORE IN THE RED ZONE
The Seahawks were horrible in the red zone at Washington, scoring just one TD in six tries and settling for three short field goals. They cannot turn the ball over down there, as Lynch did at the 1-yard line in Washington.
The Seahawks were No. 2 in red-zone efficiency this season, scoring 51 times in 54 possessions inside the 20-yard line — 31 touchdowns and 20 field goals. Lynch’s fumble last week was their first red-zone turnover of the season.
The Falcons give up plenty of yards, but they get stingy around the goal line; they were fifth in the league in red zone defense, giving up a touchdown 45.2 percent of the time.
“They bring a lot of pressure in the red zone, a lot of cover-zero (all-out blitz), especially the closer you get, and it comes down to making plays like every game,” Wilson told reporters. “I think we’ve done a good job in the red zone so far this season. Obviously last game we wish we would’ve done a little bit better job, but it’s a new opportunity. It’s a great opportunity for us to play at a high level.”
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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.