NFC Divisional Game
Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) at Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
1:35 p.m. Saturday, Georgia Dome, Atlanta
TV: Ch. 13 Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
Russell Wilson is now free of his left knee brace. He set career highs in passes (546), completions (353) and yards (a Seahawks-record 4,219). But he threw a career-high 11 interceptions, with 21 TDs and a career-low rating of 92.6. Matt Ryan is likely to be voted the league’s MVP. He just got named All-Pro for the first time, edging Tom Brady. His 9.26 yards per pass attempt was the highest in NFL history for a 16-game starter. Ryan joined Brady and Aaron Rodgers as the only players to throw for at least 3,500 yards and 35 touchdowns in a season with fewer than 10 interceptions. But Atlanta is 1-4 in the postseason under Ryan as their QB, while Seattle is 8-3 with Wilson.
Thomas Rawls rushed for a franchise playoff-record 161 yards against the Lions last week in his best effort of the season. Marcel Reece has been a revelation as a fullback since signing last month. Rookie C.J. Prosise has a chance to play for the first time since he broke his shoulder blade in late November. If he does, the Seahawks’ backfield will be loaded. Atlanta has the league’s most dynamic RB duo in Devonta Freeman (1,079 yards, 11 TDs) and Tevin Coleman (520 yards, 8 TDs). And they combined for 85 receptions and 5 TDs.
Doug Baldwin followed his Seahawks record-tying 94 catches with 11 more last weekend. Paul Richardson made three amazing catches, one for a TD, filling in for injured Tyler Lockett. Could Jermaine Kearse be playoff clutch again? Atlanta’s Julio Jones is All-World. Mohamed Sanu had 59 catches and Taylor Gabriel is zooming fast, averaging 16.5 yards per catch.
Jimmy Graham is a weapon the Seahawks still haven’t fully unleashed; he missed last year’s after knee surgery. The Falcons use three towering tight ends — 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo, Austin Hooper and former UW Husky Joshua Perkins for injured Jacob Tamme — in formations that suggest run, then often result in huge pass plays.
The Seahawks’ potential fatal weakness became a strength against Detroit with more man-on-man, straight-ahead blocking. They did, however, surrender three sacks. Atlanta left tackle Jake Matthews ticked off Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett with a cut block in October that led to Bennett’s knee surgery. Center Alex Mack, whom Seattle tried to sign as a free agent last spring, made his fourth Pro Bowl. The Falcons allowed 37 sacks of Ryan in 571 drop backs, one every 15.4 attempts.
When Seattle beat Atlanta in October, Bennett had five hits on Ryan, and the Seahawks hit Ryan 13 times — more than any other Falcons foe. Four of those hits came on sacks, and no one sacked him more in a game this season. Bennett, fellow Pro Bowl end Cliff Avril (career-high11 1/2 sacks) and second-year end Frank Clark (10 sacks) can win the game for Seattle. Atlanta’s front is playing much better than it was when it sacked Wilson just once. Grady Jarrett is athletic and 305 pounds of trouble inside. End Adrian Clayborn is second on the Falcons with 4 1/2 sacks. Dwight Freeney, at age 36, had three sacks.
All-Pro Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright make the Seahawks uniquely equipped to handle Atlanta’s backs. They are fast enough to cover and strong enough to tackle in the open field. Vic Beasley (NFL-best 15 1/2 sacks) has become the terror on Atlanta’s defense. He’s taken off since Seattle last saw him, and he’ll be flying off the edge against Seahawks tackles George Fant and Garry Gilliam.
Earl Thomas’ broken leg has changed the Seahawks’ vaunted Legion of Boom — and not for the better. Ryan will attempt to exploit it by targeting replacement Steven Terrell. Three-time All-Pro Richard Sherman is likely to shadow Julio Jones at least part of the time. Jones had four catches on him in October. Falcons safety Keanu Neal considers himself a protégé of Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. They trained together last summer. Atlanta lost Wilson High’s Desmond Trufant (torn pectoral) for the season in Week 9. The Seahawks will target his replacement, second-year man Jalen Collins.
Devin Hester, the NFL record holder with 19 career returns for TDs, is Seattle’s new kickoff and punt returner as of last week. He was noticeably cautious calling fair catches and letting punts bounce last weekend. Atlanta has allowed big punt returns this season. He replaces the injured Pro Bowler Tyler Lockett. Kicker Steven Hauschka has missed seven extra points this season and 10 kicks in all, as many as he missed the previous two seasons combined. Atlanta’s Matt Bryant has missed just three of 37 field-goal tries. Eric Weems averages more than 11 yards per punt returns, fifth in the league.
The Falcons are home, rested off a bye and loaded. The Seahawks believe they have the playoff experience to get this done. Seattle’s offense is as confident this week as its been all season, and its offensive line feels great about itself for a chance. Atlanta’s huge advantage is Dan Quinn knowing how to exploit Seattle’s defense — since he once ran it and most of its key guys.
THE PICK: Seahawks 28, Falcons 27
The championship experience shows up.