Matchup: (5) Seattle Seahawks at (1) Atlanta Falcons
Site: Georgia Dome (Atlanta, Georgia)
The Seahawks enjoyed their first helping of playoff football by knocking off the Washington Redskins last week. Now it’s time to head back to the buffet for more. The Seahawks head to Atlanta to take on the NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons in an NFC Divisional playoff. This is the first meeting between these two teams in the playoffs. The Seahawks lead the all-time series with the Falcons 8-5 but have lost three straight. Their last meeting was in week 4 of last season. The Falcons got out to a 24-7 halftime lead but a strong second half charge put the Seahawks in a position to come back and win. They could not however, falling to the Falcons 30-28. This is also Seattle’s first trip back to the Georgia Dome since week 17 of the 2007 season. There is lots to talk about this week so let’s get to it.
After the Seahawks beat Washington last week I immediately turned my attention to the team statistics of the Atlanta Falcons. The stat that caught my eye was their team rushing defense. The Falcons are ranked 21st in the National Football League in rushing yards allowed per game. That number is 123 yards per game. With Marshawn Lynch attracting lots of attention by the Falcons this week combined with the running threat of quarterback Russell Wilson, I think the Seahawks will have many prime opportunities to move the ball effectively and put up points. My key in the running game is getting off to a fast start and moving the ball while at the same time keeping the Atlanta defense on their feet and keeping their crowd silent. I will monitor Marshawn Lynch’s yards quarter by quarter while also taking a look at how well the zone-read option works early. It will be big for Atlanta if they can sniff out the zone-read and limit that dimension of our offense. I think if Lynch averages 25-30 yards per quarter and Wilson can run for a couple first downs per quarter the Seahawks offense will put many points on the board. The Falcons are also ranked 23rd in the NFL in passing yards given up and that will be a factor as long as Wilson doesn’t turn the ball over but the running game is the x-factor for the Seahawks effectiveness this week.
All of the talk in the national media this week has been the matchups on the outside. The Falcons boast arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the league with Roddy White and Julio Jones. Across the line of scrimmage the Seahawks boast arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league with Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. The wide receivers are very talented and have the capabilities to make plays. The cornerbacks are also fully capable of taking those big plays away. The thing to be watching for is potential penalties on Sherman and Browner. Depending on whom the referees are on the outside, they will either keep their flags in their pockets, allowing Sherman and Browner to be extra physical or if they look like they are making too much contact, they will be called for penalties. This fortunately or unfortunately will decide how effective both units are. The Seahawks may be in trouble if the cornerbacks are being called for holding or illegal contact especially early in the game.
With the season-ending injuries to defensive end Chris Clemons and kicker Steven Hauschka, the Seahawks have added two new players. The more recognized new face is Hauschka’s replacement; kicker Ryan Longwell. Longwell, 38, has spent the previous 15 seasons split with the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. Longwell is a Puyallup native and beat out a handful of kickers including former Arizona Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers and rookie Carson Wiggs for the job. Longwell has a stronger leg than Hauschka but has not kicked all season. I trust Longwell to make moderate field goals (21-45 yards) but field goals from 46+ yards are a mystery to me. The other new Seahawk is defensive end Patrick Chukwurah. Chukwurah has been absent from the NFL for four years. He has spent the last few years in the United Football League and led the league in sacks the past two seasons. He last played in the NFL in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but did not record any statistics. Although Bruce Irvin will start and take a lot of snaps, I expect Chukwurah to see between 10-20 plays this week in place of Irvin. Longwell will wear number 7 and Chukwurah will wear number 97 for those wondering.
The Georgia Dome may be a louder stadium to play in than FedExField was last week but the fan base may not be as tough to face as last week. There were over 5,000 tickets still available for Sunday’s game according to ESPN and the NFL. Combine that with the recent playoff woes of the Atlanta Falcons, I get the gist from the Atlanta media that it feels like there is not as much excitement over Falcons football as should be expected. I think the environment will be loud but manageable. If the Seahawks can get off to a fast start, the crowd will not matter. This is the first time I can remember that the field conditions and weather will not play a factor for a road playoff game. I think this gives us a hidden advantage that many other people would overlook. Nevertheless we are traveling across the country, playing the number one seed in the conference, and playing in a dome. Warning Seahawks fans, it should be normal to be cautiously optimistic and/or a little bit worried this week in regards to the environment.
It’s time for me to throw some numbers out there! This might make the 12th Man feel better about what to expect on Sunday. The Falcons went 7-1 at home in 2012. Their only loss was in week 17 to Tampa Bay when they had already clinched home-field advantage and played their second stringers for most of the game. The Falcons either trailed or held a one-score lead at halftime in 5 of their 8 games this season. Of their 7 victories, 5 of them ended as one-score wins. The scary thing though was that their 10-point win over New Orleans and their 34-0 shutout of the New York Giants occurred in the second half of the season. Of their 5 one-score margin of victory wins, they went into the half either tied or trailing three times. Based on these numbers the conclusions I have drawn are that the Falcons have shown they could get off to a slow start but have improved in the first half of games as the season has progressed. The Seahawks are the best defense the Falcons have faced all year and they have not played a team that qualified for the playoffs since playing the Redskins in week 5. This game could definitely be close at halftime and that is exactly what I expect to happen.
Random Thoughts: The Seahawks are going to wear white jerseys again this week. I don’t think you can mess up a winning combination, thus I hope the Seahawks wear white pants again… The referee this week is Walt Coleman. We will see if his all-star crew (the NFL puts together the best referees into different “all-star” crews for the playoffs) will be calling a tight game for Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner this week… The Seahawks only won one 10am kickoff game this season. Not going to lie this worries me a little bit… Don’t sleep on Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez will most likely see a lot of Kam Chancellor in the middle this week and he has the best hands of any tight end in the league. Last week a lot of short passes caught the Seahawks defense off guard early and if Matt Ryan can connect with Gonzalez he can make some catches he is hard to bring down. He will definitely be a challenge that cannot go unnoticed… Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick have the call for FOX this week with Laura Okmin and Chris Myers patrolling the sidelines. It should be a good broadcast because I am a fan of Brennaman and Billick does a good job offering his very educated commentary… I’m having another group of friends over to my house Sunday morning for the game. Hopefully more show up than last week but it will be tough to beat since we had a good number of people over last week… It feels like it’s about time to get over this divisional playoff hump. We have been stopped in this round our last three trips to the playoffs. It feels like it should be time to break the barn door down and get back to the NFC Championship game.
Prediction: This kills me but like I always try to preach, I try to be a realist. Although the Seahawks have the best defense the Falcons have faced all season I just feel that Atlanta’s offense is too powerful for us to handle. I think since there has been expanded speculation in the media this week about the way the refs will call the game along the outside, the game will be called tight and the Seahawks will suffer. Those penalties will come at the most inopportune times and will keep Atlanta drives alive and unfortunately translate into points. The better overall team will unfortunately not win this game as mistakes and one more turnover than the home team will doom us. The game will be close but those penalties and mistakes will cost us a trip to the NFC title game. DO NOT get me wrong, I hope to God that I am completely wrong and hopefully we will advance to either San Francisco or Green Bay to play for the NFC Championship but unfortunately I think there is a slightly better chance that we will come up short.
Falcons 35, Seahawks 31
Win or lose, check back hopefully Sunday night (It might be published in the early morning hours on Monday) for my review of Sunday’s game. Hopefully I will have at least one more preview to write for next weekend also. Enjoy the game everybody. I’M IN! Go Hawks!