ATLANTA — He can start a fire with two wet sticks.
When it comes to creating a championship-type atmosphere, few rival the ability of Seattle coach Pete Carroll to get his players on task, getting them worked up from a dull roar on Monday to a fevered frenzy when the referee blows the whistle on Sunday.
Carroll has thematic days during the work week to keep his players focused on the task at hand – competition Wednesday, turnover Thursday, no-repeat Friday and review Saturday
It’s more art than science, gleaned from nearly 40 years of motivating players while coaching in college and in the pros.
The Seahawks will have traveled a combined 5,000 miles in consecutive weeks when they lace up the cleats and take to the Georgia Dome Field Turf this morning (10 a.m., Ch. 13) in an NFC Divisional playoff game against No. 1 seed Atlanta.
No matter, Carroll will have them ready.
“We’ve done what we needed to do at this point, and it feels good,” Carroll said on Friday. “The guys feel great about it. So we hit the road, and we have our big routine that we can get into now. It’s pretty relaxed from this point forward until we get to game time, and everything should be in order.”
The art of motivating grown men pulling down high-dollar contracts will be put to the test once again, by Carroll and his counterpart, Atlanta coach Mike Smith.
For Carroll, he’s been here before. Two years ago, he had a ragtag roster on the verge of making the NFC title game in his first season in Seattle, but fell to Chicago on the road at Soldier Field, 35-24.
Carroll also had New England one victory from the AFC Championship game, falling to Pittsburgh, 7-6, in the playoffs after the 1997 season.
Only 13 players on this year’s 53-man roster played during Seattle’s 2010 NFC run, when the team advanced to the playoffs with a losing record.
The Seahawks travel to Atlanta with the youngest team remaining in the playoffs, guided by a 5-foot-11 rookie quarterback who plays like a playoff veteran, and a bow-legged running back who rumbles between the hashes with the ferocity of a bulldog.
“I feel like it’s much different than the first time around a couple years ago,” Carroll said. “It’s an entirely different roster, but it just feels different. We’ve earned a different right to have confidence in our play and the background of all these games in the entire second half of the season and on the road and all that stuff.
“We’ve put all those together in a sensible way, I think, that we have a good confidence level going in. We’ll find out.”
Smith arguably has the weight of an impatient owner and an entire city on his broad shoulders. Although Falcons owner Arthur Blank is itching to parade the Vince Lombardi trophy through downtown Atlanta, his team has only sniffed at playoff success during his tenure.
The Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs since Smith took over in 2008. But two of those losses were to the eventual Super Bowl winner (the New York Giants last year and Green Bay the year before) and the other was against an Arizona team that was 42 seconds away from winning the big game.
Predictably, Smith said all of the right things when asked if he was feeling any pressure going into today’s game.
“You learn from all of your experiences, whether they’re positive or negative,” Smith said. “And it’s something that we’ve evaluated. But once you get into the season, it really has no bearing. You make the adjustments that you feel like you need to make, and you go through the preparation like you normally do.”
Also feeling the heat is Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. The Boston College product was impressive during the regular season, living up to his reputation as “Matty Ice.” But the fifth-year pro’s career performance in the playoffs has been pedestrian at best. He’s thrown for three touchdowns and four interceptions in three playoff losses, failed to top 200 yards passing and has posted a 71.2 passer rating in the postseason.
If Ryan loses today against Seattle, he’ll join Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle as the only quarterbacks in league history to lose each of their first four postseason starts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“There’s really no sense in worrying about what happened in the past,” Ryan said. “I think you learn from it. You make adjustments. You try and use it in a positive light. We talk about it all the time – what you did the week before, what you did the year before has no bearing on what you do the next time out.”
Seattle Seahawks (11-5, 1-0 postseason) at Atlanta Falcons (13-3)
10 a.m. today, Ch. 13, 97.3-FM, 710-AM
The Series: The teams have not met in the playoffs, but Seattle has an 8-5 edge in regular-season games. The Seahawks are 4-2 on the road against Atlanta. The last time Seattle played in the Georgia Dome, the Seahawks lost, 44-41, on Dec. 30, 2007.
The Coaches: Atlanta’s Mike Smith has a 56-24 record in five seasons as an NFL head coach – all with the Falcons. Smith has never won fewer than nine games, and he has his team in the playoffs for the fourth time. However, Smith is 0-3 in the playoffs, including 0-1 at home. Seattle coach Pete Carroll has a 58-54 record in seven NFL seasons as a head coach. He is 25-23 with Seattle in the regular season, and 2-1 in the playoffs.
Last game: The Falcons defeated the Seahawks, 30-28, on Oct. 2, 2011, at CenturyLink Field – but almost gave up a 27-7 lead when Steven Hauschka’s 61-yard field goal attempt as time ran out fell short.
Injury report: For Seattle – CB Byron Maxwell (hamstring) is doubtful. SS Jeron Johnson (hamstring) is questionable. RB Marshawn Lynch (foot) and WR Sidney Rice (knee) are probable and expected to play. For Atlanta – Reserve CB Christopher Owens (hamstring) has been ruled out. DE John Abraham (ankle) and S Charles Mitchell (calf) are questionable. S William Moore (hamstring) and CB Dunta Robinson (head) are probable and expected to play.
THE MATCHUPSTHE EDGE
Although Matt Ryan has yet to win a playoff game in his five seasons in the NFL, he’s having an MVP-type of season. Ryan finished the regular season with career highs in passing yards (4,719), touchdowns (32) and passer rating (99.1). Ryan and the Falcons also are tough to beat at home. Ryan has a 33-6 record at the Georgia Dome, and is 20-0 when he posts a 100.0 or better passer rating. But Seattle rookie Russell Wilson is no slouch on the road. In his past four games away from CenturyLink Field, Wilson has six touchdown passes and no interceptions, and a 24-14 wild-card win over the Washington Redskins.
Marshawn Lynch is one of the best backs in the league, reaching the 100-yard mark 11 times this season. Lynch is facing an Atlanta defense that is giving up an average of 123.2 rushing yards a game. Atlanta running back Michael Turner finished with 800 yards this season, the first time he has not rushed for 1,000 yards since 2009. Turner’s 3.6 yards per carry is down almost a full yard from last season’s average off 4.5 yards a carry.
Atlanta has perhaps the most talented receiving group in the NFL, with Roddy White (92 catches, 1,351 yards, 7 TDs), Tony Gonzalez (93 catches, 930, 8 TDs) and Julio Jones (79 for 1,198, 10 TDs). The Falcons were one of three teams this season to have a trio of receivers finish with 100-plus targets (White 143, Jones 128 and Gonzalez 124). Sidney Rice leads Seattle with 50 catches for 748 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season, but he finished with only 82 targets for the season.
Atlanta has two pretty solid pass protectors in offensive tackles Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo. The Falcons allowed only 29 sacks all season, and averaged 282 passing yards a game – No. 6 in the league. However, Seattle’s front five helped the Seahawks ground out 161.2 rushing yards a contest, No. 3 in the league.
Both units come into the game less than 100 percent healthy. Seattle will play without sack leader Chris Clemons, who was placed on the injured reserve this week with a knee injury. Atlanta’s sack leader, John Abraham, is questionable because of an ankle injury. Rookie Bruce Irvin has to step up in Clemons’ absence. Seattle’s big three of Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant and Alan Branch put the Seahawks over the top here.
Stephen Nicholas leads Atlanta in tackles with 97, and Sean Weatherspoon is an up-and-coming playmaker. But Seattle’s linebackers have been more consistent in containing the running game, led by rookie Bobby Wagner and second-year pro K.J. Wright, although they struggle at times in pass coverage.
Seattle’s big corners, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, should provide some resistance to Atlanta’s dynamic duo of White and Jones. However, Atlanta also has a talented secondary in corners Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson, and safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. Atlanta defeated Denver’s Peyton Manning, the New York Giants’ Eli Manning and New Orleans’ Drew Brees in the Georgia Dome, forcing those three talented quarterbacks into a combined 10 interceptions.
All eyes will be on new Seattle kicker Ryan Longwell, who takes over for Steven Hauschka (IR with a calf strain). Longwell, 38, has not played this season but made a 55-yarder this week at the Seahawks’ practice facility. He’ll also handle the kickoff duties. Atlanta punter Matt Bosher had two punts blocked this season.
Mike Smith is under tremendous pressure to win his first playoff game with the Falcons. Pete Carroll won a playoff game for the second time in three seasons, and has his team relaxed and loose heading on the road again at Atlanta. The Seahawks will have traveled over 5,000 miles in two weeks.
The Seahawks are 21/2-point underdogs and have become the trendy pick nationally. But Seattle will have to play a perfect game to win on the road for a second straight week.Eric D. Williams: 253-597-8437 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/seahawks @eric_d_williams email@example.com