4:35 PM EST, FOX – Line: Falcons -5, Over/Under: 51
After a Wild Card Weekend littered with blowouts, expect things to tighten up in the Divisional Round as the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons kick things off Saturday Evening at the Georgia Dome. For the third time in four years, the Seahawks (10-5-1, 1st in NFC West) won the NFC West, and for the fifth consecutive season, Pete Carroll’s charges have won a Playoff Game, which is the longest such streak in the conference. It would be hard to argue that this is by far and away the most accomplished and experienced team left in the NFC, even if they aren’t close to being as dominant as they were from 2013 to 2014 when they captured the NFC in consecutive years. That was particularly the case when they trampled the Detroit Lions last weekend, as Russell Wilson and Co. invoked their past selves in the 26-6 victory. The hosts absolutely suffocated the Lions’ Offense, permitting just 231 Total Yards, while limiting Matthew Stafford to a miserable 205 yards on 18-of-32 passing, sacking the Quarterback three times. In addition to dominating on the defensive side of the ball, Seattle also welcomed the return of their dormant rushing attack, led by Thomas Rawls, who racked up 161 yards and a touchdown on twenty-seven carries, while the home side’s 177 rushing yards represented their second-highest total of the season, and was more than they had totaled in the previous two games combined. Simply put, when this team is running the ball this effectively, it makes them incredibly difficult to beat, allowing Wilson (64.7% 4,219 YDS, 7.7 Y/A, 21 TD, 11 INT) the luxury of a clean pocket (which has been a rare commodity in 2016), and affording their vaunted Defense the opportunity to rest. An injury-depleted Backfield coupled with a perpetually struggling Offensive Line all but neutralized the ground game this season, as Seattle rushed for just 99.4 Yards per Game (25th Overall) on 3.9 Yards per Carry (24th Overall). Granted, Rawls (109 CAR, 349 YDS, 3 TD) was banged up throughout the term, while promising rookie C.J. Prosise (380 Total YDS, 1 TD) found him stuck on the Trainer’s Table with a fractured shoulder. Fortunately, the former looks reborn, while the latter may finally make his return to the field after suffering his ailment back on December 11th. Indeed, these guys picked a perfect time to round back into shape, for they will need to be on their A-Game against the Falcons, whom they narrowly avoided disaster against when they met earlier this season in a 26-24 victory. Back on October 16th at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks stormed out to a 17-3 lead at Halftime, looking to be firmly in command, but inexplicably conceded twenty-one Third Quarter points, as Matt Ryan torched them for three touchdowns in an eleven-minute span. Fortunately, the hosts managed to right the ship, engineering a nine-play, 70-yard drive culminating in a touchdown, to regain momentum before taking the lead via a Field Goal following an interception. On the day, Seattle put forth 333 Total Yards, while Wilson completed 25-of-37 attempts for 270 yards, while the Defense shut the running game down (fifty-two yards on eighteen carries), logged four sacks, and forced a pair of turnovers, including the tide-turning interception inside of four minutes remaining. With that said, there are a few things that will be noticeably different in this matchup. First and foremost, today’s game will be played at the Georgia Dome, not in the Pacific Northwest, where these guys have been so difficult to compete against over the past few years. Secondly, Carroll and his Staff will be without a pair of significant contributors for this rematch, as Christine Michael (sixty-four yards and two touchdowns on eighteen carries) has since been released from the roster, while All-Pro Safety Earl Thomas (who came up with that interception) has landed on Injured Reserve with a broken leg suffered back on December 4th. We’ve said it before, Thomas (46 TKL, 2 INT, 10 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD) is the difference between this defense being very good and dominant, with the void left in his wake creating a rather large problem area for the Legion of Boom.
Meanwhile, after returning to the Playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Falcons (11-5, 1st in NFC South) now find themselves under the pressure to deliver on this stage for the first time in ages. Though they don’t get the flak that a team like Cincinnati may get for their postseason ineptitude, this franchise has a less than sterling record come January, particularly during the Matt-Ryan Era; since drafting the four-time Pro Bowl Quarterback back in 2008, Atlanta has gone 85-59 (.592), qualifying for the Playoffs on four occasions, but has earned just won victory in that time. Coincidentally, that lone win came against today’s opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, whom they dispatched in a thrilling 30-28 triumph in the Divisional Round at the Georgia Dome. Indeed, as deja vu sets in, today’s stage couldn’t have been set any better. As we explained earlier, this will be the second meeting between these franchises this season, as Dan Quinn’s charges came up short after a furious comeback in Week Five’s 26-24 loss at CenturyLink Field. Ryan (69.9% 4,944 YDS, 9.3 Y/A, 38 TD, 7 INT) enjoyed his ups and downs that day, completing 27-of-42 passes for 335 yards and three touchdowns, but was sacked four times, and threw the tide-turning (yet controversial) interception late in the Fourth Quarter, ultimately sealing his team’s fate. We’d no doubt expect him to be chomping at the bit for another shot at the Legion of Boom, particularly given the weapons that he has at his disposal. Simply put, if there’s one Offense that’s equipped to shred these guys, it’s the Falcons; under the direction of Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan, this unit was the most prolific in the league, averaging 33.8 points (1st Overall) on 430.5 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including 310.0 yards through the air (3rd Overall) on 8.2 Net Yards per Attempt (1st Overall), and another 120.5 yards on the ground (5th Overall) on 4.6 Yards per Carry (5th Overall), all the while committing a league-low eleven turnovers. They can air it out with Receivers like Julio Jones (83 REC, 1,409 YDS, 6 TD), or play power football and run it down your throat with Tailbacks such as Devonta Freeman (227 CAR, 1,079 YDS, 11 TD), so is it any surprise that Ryan has established himself as one of the prime candidates for MVP? Indeed, the ninth-year veteran enjoyed his finest campaign as a professional, reaching career-highs in a number of categories including Completion Percentage (69.9%), Passing Yards (4,944), Touchdowns (38), Yards per Attempt (9.3), Quarterback Rating (83.3), and Net Yards per Attempt (8.25), while leading the league in those last three fields. However, let’s not fall into the typical Strength versus Strength battle, the x-factor in today’s contest is Quinn’s Defense, which has shown some real understated growth over the course of the term. After their Bye Week in late November, the Falcons held opponents to a far more respectable 20.5 points in comparison to the 28.3 that preceded it. Furthermore, Atlanta held the opposition below twenty points on just five occasions this season, but four of them came in the last six games alone. Over that period, they forced eleven turnovers in comparison to committing a scant three themselves, while the pass-rush really began to ramp up with second-year Edge Rusher Vic Beasley leading the NFL with 15.5 Sacks. Quinn should be able to provide some solid insight into his charges facing Seattle, for the Head Coach spent two years on Carroll’s Staff, serving as his Defensive Coordinator from 2013 to 2014, in which the Seahawks led the league in Points Allowed while winning Super Bowl XLVIII and reaching Super Bowl XLIX.