By Sam McPherson
The Seattle Seahawks held the Detroit Lions to just 231 yards of total offense last weekend in a 26-6 playoff victory at home. Now the team goes on the road this Saturday to play the Atlanta Falcons, champions of the NFC South, with the highest-scoring offense in the NFL this year. It will be a completely different challenge, and while every Seahawks defensive player will tell you the team is up for the challenge, the matchup looks very frightening on paper. However, with quarterback Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense looking stronger, this game could turn into a high-scoring shootout that the Seahawks really aren’t known for playing.
Saturday afternoon’s match-up is the first of the four Divisional Round postseason match-ups, and it could be the most intriguing one, matching strength against strength. Despite a key injury to safety Earl Thomas, the Seattle defense finished as the third-stringiest unit in the league, allowing only 18.3 points per game, while the Atlanta offense overcame its own temporary injury woes to post a league-best 33.8 points every time out. The now-healthy Seahawks offense should have clear advantages over a porous Falcons defense, but it all depends on game flow and momentum changes. This game should be an entertaining affair for fans, and it could go down to the wire.
Falcons Season Record
Atlanta posted an 11-5 record on its way to winning the NFC South Division, and that included wins over playoff teams from Green Bay and Oakland. Among the losses were dropped games against division champions from Kansas City and Seattle. The Falcons started off 4-1, and after a bumpy patch in the middle of the season, they recovered to win five of their final six games to win their division. If it wasn’t for a two-point conversion blunder against the Chiefs in Week 13 at home, Atlanta would be riding a six-game winning streak right now.
The Week 6 game between the Falcons and the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field was an instant classic, as Seattle scored twice in the final five minutes of the game to escape with a 26-24 win at home. This game could be very similar, despite the fact that it’s going to be played at the Georgia Dome, where Atlanta beat Seattle, 30-28, on a last-second field goal. In that game, the Falcons jumped out to a 20-0 lead before falling behind in the final minute. The Seahawks defense couldn’t close the deal in that game, and Seattle could find itself in the same situation this weekend, unfortunately, due to Thomas’ absence from the lineup.
Falcons On Offense
The probable league MVP this year is Atlanta QB Matt Ryan as he posted a 117.1 QB rating this season, buoyed by 38 touchdown passes and 69.9 completion percentage. He’s been a surgeon all season, throwing just seven interceptions and averaging an incredible 9.3 yards per attempt. He did this without the services of Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones for two games, as well. Jones still caught 83 passes for 1,409 yards, however, and eight different players on this offense caught at least 20 passes this year. WR Taylor Gabriel emerged this year, with a 16.5-yard per reception average, giving Ryan a lot of options downfield.
Beyond the passing game, the Falcons also have a strong running game, with two running backs to choose from depending on the situation: Devonta Freeman ran for over 1,000 yards and scored 11 TDs on the ground, while Tevin Coleman gained over 500 yards and scored eight times carrying the ball. Both RBs also catch passes, combining for 85 catches, almost 900 yards between them and an additional five TDs. Gabriel also scored on a rushing attempt this year, so the Falcons’ dynamic offense certainly is no simple thing to defend, even for a team like Seattle.
Falcons On Defense
This is the huge weakness on the Atlanta team in 2016. The Falcons gave up more than 25 points per game this year, and against four playoff teams in the regular season, this number increased to almost 29 points per game. Teams can score on Atlanta, because other than Pro Bowl linebacker Vic Beasley, there is not a lot of standout talent on this roster. However, two things need to be remembered: Falcons head coach Dan Quinn used to be the Seattle defensive coordinator, and Atlanta often was playing with big leads this year, which enabled opposing offenses to pile up meaningless points and yards long after the game was out of reach.
Beasley had 15.5 sacks this year, while fellow LB Deion Jones piled up 106 tackles to lead the team in that category. The rest of the top-five tacklers on this defense were in the secondary, which means the front seven wasn’t stopping the opposing offense anywhere near as much as the average defense should be doing. However, the Falcons have an opportunistic bunch, resulting from the desperation of many opposing offenses late in games: Atlanta has forced turnovers in eight straight games, including five against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14.
Falcons Players To Watch
With so many other players to watch on offense, Atlanta has a three-headed, tight end monster that combined for 54 receptions, 745 yards and eight TDs. While all eyes are on the “stars” of the offense, these three TEs can get open. With the Seattle defense struggling to cover tight ends in key situations late in games over the last few seasons, this could be a problem for the Seahawks. Also, while Wilson’s mobility has improved lately due to his legs being healthy, the Seattle offense still has to make sure Beasley doesn’t become a one-man wrecking crew. Making sure he’s blocked on every play would a smart decision for the Seahawks.
If defense wins championships, the Falcons don’t have that going for them, despite Quinn’s attempts to improve the unit. On paper, Atlanta should win this game as the offense will be difficult for Seattle to slow down. However, the Seahawks offense will be able to score on the Falcons defense, too. If Thomas Rawls can run on Atlanta like he did on Detroit, then Seattle has a good chance to pick up this road win.