Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons — Sunday, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)
Let’s start with the obvious: the Atlanta Falcons are yet to win a playoff game in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era.
This is the fourth time in five years the coach and quarterback combo have played in the postseason, and for the most part, the previous three losses weren’t even close. Last year’s Wild-Card Game against the New York Giants was a complete disaster.
Needless to say, the pressure is on.
The storyline nearly 2,700 miles northwest of Atlanta couldn’t be any different: The Seattle Seahawks are playing with house money.
Teams with rookie third-round quarterbacks that started 4-4 aren’t supposed to be playing for a chance to advance to the NFC Championship Game. But those are the circumstances surrounding Sunday afternoon’s game.
And yet, this Falcons team doesn’t feel like the Falcons teams of the past. This 13-3 squad was disrespected so much all season, it has an underdog feel to it. Meanwhile Seattle is the hottest NFC team still playing, having won eight of its last nine games.
But this is the playoffs, so none of that really matters. What does matter are the matchups on the field and injury situations for each team. Let’s take a look at those:
Matchup To Watch: Atlanta WRs vs. Seattle DBs
Don’t expect Pete Carroll to try to out-scheme his counterpart with these matchups. The Seattle coach has a lot of faith in his young corners, and will likely put them in one-on-one matchups. Expect these corners to press White and Jones on the outside, and may the best man (men) win.
Looking strictly at the numbers, its pretty much a toss up—White and Jones ranked in the top 20 in receptions this season, but the Seahawks had the sixth-ranked pass defense. With all the focus on the outside, it wouldn’t be surprising if tight end Tony Gonzalez has a big game in the middle of the field.
Edge: Atlanta, but only because of the Gonzalez factor.
QB Comparison: Matt Ryan vs. Russell Wilson
The surface-level facts say Ryan should win this hands down. He is the veteran. He’s been here before. It’s a home game. He has better weapons on the outside. But Russell Wilson doesn’t care.
He expects to win every game because he doesn’t know any better. Honestly, how many rookie quarterbacks can go down 14-0 in their first playoff game, which happens to be on the road, and rally for the win?
One. And he’s the guy facing lining up opposite Ryan this weekend.
Ryan’s numbers have been very underwhelming in his three playoff appearances—70-110 passing, 584 yards, three touchdowns, four interceptions and a quarterback rating of 71.2.
Compare that to Wilson’s stat line last week—15-26, 187 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions and a quarterback rating of 92.9.
Wilson feels more like the seasoned vet than Ryan, and you expect him to play within himself more than his counterpart in a game of this magnitude.
When Seattle lost defensive end Chris Clemons with a torn ACL and torn meniscus last week, it lost more than just its season sack leader. It lost its best player in the box.
When Carroll told the Seattle media this week, “we’ll miss the heck out of him,” it was an understatement. Not only did Clemons rack up 11.5 sacks in 2012, he was the team’s defensive leader and also played a key role in stopping the run.
The Falcons struggled to run the ball all season, but Clemons’ injury should help Michael Turner and the rest of the Atlanta backfield find some holes. Because while rookie Bruce Irvin may be able to apply similar quarterback pressure as Clemons, he isn’t close to as complete of a player as the veteran.
Muddling matters even more for the Seahawks is their kicking situation, with Steven Hauschka being placed injured reserve Wednesday. Seattle signed veteran Ryan Longwell to take over in that department, but the 38-year-old has been out of football all season.
Meanwhile Atlanta appears to have dodged a bullet as two of its defensive stars appear set to return after suffering Week 17 injuries. Cornerback Dunta Robinson was cleared last week following his concussion, and defensive end John Abraham practiced this week after injuring his ankle in the regular season finale.
Edge: Atlanta, obviously.
We just touched on two of the three biggest keys of the game to Atlanta, but we didn’t even mention Marshawn Lynch, who makes Seattle’s offense go.
Lynch racked up nearly 1,600 yards in the regular season, and showed out to the tune of 132 yards and a touchdown last week. He hasn’t had a double-digit rushing game since Week 13. So while you never want to say a perennial Pro Bowler is the X-factor, Lynch is. If he can keep doing what he has been doing—and there’s no reason to think he can’t against an Atlanta defense which ranked 12th in rush defense this season—Seattle should be able to leave Atlanta with the W.
Prediction: Seahawks 21, Falcons 20