Though they earned the top seed, the Falcons’ 13-3 regular-season record doesn’t seem to impress many experts. Don Shelton of the Seattle Times did a survey earlier this week and found that almost 80 percent of the analysts he looked at are picking the Seahawks to win.
On the surface, Atlanta would seem to be a clear favorite. Matt Ryan and the Falcons have a tremendous passing attack, the Seahawks’ best pass rusher is out for the season, Atlanta was 7-1 at home this season and they’re going up against a Seattle team that was 3-5 on the road.
However, Seattle’s road record is not a reflection of how they’ve been playing away from CenturyLink Field. They are now 3-0 in their last three road games and their five losses were never by more than a touchdown.
The Falcons have an outstanding team that nearly went 8-0 at home, but there are five main reasons why experts are lining up behind the Seahawks to win again on the road this weekend.
Seahawks’ Hot Streak
Much of the reason why Seattle is getting so much respect in the media is they are riding the type of hot streak that we’ve seen from Super Bowl teams in the past.
Russell Wilson and the Seahawks received national attention after their 23-17 overtime win against the Chicago Bears in Week 13. They followed that victory with a 58-0 shutout over the Arizona Cardinals and a 50-17 win over the Buffalo Bills.
But the signature win of the season was a 42-13 win on Sunday Night Football over the San Francisco 49ers. This was after a week of hearing that the Niners were the best team in the NFL following their win over the New England Patriots on the same stage.
The Seahawks’ victory over the Redskins showed they could come back even when faced with an early deficit.
One thing hurting the Falcons, and something they have no control over, is they have only played three teams all season that finished with a record over .500 (the Denver Broncos, Washington Redskins, and Dallas Cowboys). Atlanta won all three games, but since Week 9 they haven’t played a team that finished the season with a winning record.
Losing the final game of the season at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers doesn’t help their cause either, even though they already had the first seed locked up.
Much like the idea of riding a hot streak, the discussion of past success in the playoffs is more of a mental aspect that has a much less significant impact than the physical matchups between the teams.
The Falcons’ coaches and players have been reminded all week of their 0-3 playoff record under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. But each year they have lost to the eventual Super Bowl representative from the NFC.
Some players may use it as added motivation, others may push it aside, but if it has any impact on the Falcons at all, it will be from the added pressure they place on themselves.
The stakes are so high in the playoffs that players and teams don’t need to put any additional pressure on themselves. Nobody wants to be watching the Super Bowl from the couch.
While it may not play much into the matchup, the Seahawks have to be much happier to be in the position of being 1-0 in the 2013 playoffs against a team having to answer questions about why they haven’t been able to win in the postseason.
Russell Wilson vs. Falcons’ Pass Rush
The Falcons’ best pass rusher, John Abraham, was limited in practice this week and is listed as questionable on the team’s injury report. Abraham has 10 sacks this season and six forced fumbles.
How effective Abraham and the Falcons’ line will be against the Seahawks will play a key part in how well Wilson will be able to operate on Sunday.
In the last two games against the Redskins and Rams, Wilson has seen a lot of pressure from opposing defensive lines. Wilson isn’t likely to see that same type of pressure from the Falcons.
The Falcons are 28th in the league in sacks and struggled this year to contain Cam Newton on the road and at home. Newton rushed for a career-high 116 yards in the Falcons’ 30-20 loss in Week 14 and 86 yards in Atlanta’s 30-28 win in Week 4.
Atlanta’s inability to contain Newton, and the similarities between the offenses of Carolina and Seattle, provides a template for how the Seahawks may want to attack the Falcons defense.
Seattle’s Running Game
Marshawn Lynch is a big part of why the Seahawks match up well with the Atlanta Falcons. Against the Redskins, Lynch had 132 yards vs. the fifth-best rushing defense in terms of yards allowed. Seattle had more than 200 yards on the ground in spite of falling behind by 14 points in the first quarter.
Expect the Seahawks to stick with what has worked well for them all year. The Falcons rushing defense provides Seattle with the opportunity to continue to focus on what has been their biggest strength. The Seahawks had the third-best rushing attack in the league this year with an average of more than 160 yards per game.
Of all playoff teams, the Indianapolis Colts were the only team that has given up more rushing yards than the Falcons. In terms of yards per carry, the Falcons’ average of 4.8 was better than just three teams in the NFL. Only the Buffalo Bills (5.0), Indianapolis Colts (5.1), and New Orleans Saints (5.2) performed worse.
A strong running game can help keep the ball out of the hands of Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ potent passing attack. In the Week 17 win by the Buccaneers in Atlanta, Tampa Bay rushed for nearly 150 yards and held on to the ball four more minutes than the Falcons.
In Carolina’s 30-20 win in Week 13, they rushed for nearly 200 yards and kept the ball for 35 minutes compared to Atlanta’s 25.
The Seahawks’ running game should allow them the opportunity to control the football, stay on the field, and keep Ryan and his receivers on the sidelines.
Legion of Boom
The Seahawks have yet to face a trio of receivers this season like Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White. Fortunately, Seattle has a trio of its own who played in the Pro Bowl last season in Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner.
They also have Richard Sherman who has been one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL this year with eight interceptions.
The “Legion of Boom,” as the Seahawks’ secondary is known, and their matchup against the Atlanta receivers will be the primary focus of everyone’s attention. But don’t expect the Seahawks secondary to limit passing yards the same way the team did against the Redskins.
While the Seahawks were able to contain prolific passers like Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo, they also allowed more than 300 yards to Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford.
Attempting to contain the passing attack will be a big part of their goal on Sunday, but just as important will be whether they can get in position to create turnovers.
Ideally, the Seahawks’ secondary would hold Ryan and the Falcons’ receivers under 300 yards, but they have proven to be successful even when giving up big plays.
Brady was able to throw for 395 yards against Seattle in Week 4. Interceptions by Thomas and Sherman, along with three third-down stops inside the red zone by the secondary, allowed the Seahawks to stay in the game and pull off the fourth-quarter victory against New England.
It’s important to recognize that although Seattle has excellent opportunities in terms of the matchups, they also face some challenges.
While the Seahawks have done well as of late in terms of penalties, particularly in comparison to early on in the season, the Falcons are a very disciplined team and are among the fewest penalized teams in the league on both sides of the ball. If the Seahawks struggle against the Falcons, penalties could be a reason why.
With Chris Clemons out, rookie Bruce Irvin will get the start and be expected to be the same every-down player Clemons has been.
Irvin’s role so far this year has been to come in on passing downs on his way to eight sacks in the regular season. But this will be his first big test to see what he’ll do when asked to stop Falcons’ running back Michael Turner.
With the Falcons being primarily a passing team, the Clemons injury may not hurt them as badly if they were facing a run-heavy team like the San Francisco 49ers.
The final area is turnovers. Apart from Lynch’s fumble at the goal line against the Redskins, Wilson and the Seahawks have done well both at home and on the road in recent weeks to limit costly mistakes.
Both Atlanta and Seattle are +13 in turnovers, so each team will be looking to make sure they come out ahead in this game. If the Seahawks fall behind in this area, it will only emphasize the other areas they’ll need to excel at.
Overall, the Seahawks match up extremely well against this Atlanta Falcons team, which is why many experts are predicting the game to go Seattle’s way.
Come Sunday, Seahawks fans will be rooting for Atlanta’s streak of losing to the eventual Super Bowl representative for the NFC increases to four games.