Game day has dawned here sunny and warm. Too bad this afternoon’s playoff game is indoors.
It could be the last one in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons are moving into their new palace nearby for next season. Locals tells us it’s absurdly decadent.
Coach Pete Carroll talked to his Seahawks at the beginning of this week about the need to start fast today – or at least not get boat-raced early. My colleague here Dave Boling pointed out Seattle has fallen behind by a combined 72-0 in the first half during their last three losses on the road in the divisional playoffs – at Chicago, Atlanta in last January 31-0 at Carolina. Falling behind big today to Matt Ryan and the NFL’s top-scoring offense (the Falcons’ 540 points tied the old “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams of 2000 for the seventh-most points in league history) would be a bad plan to victory.
My game-advance story focused on how the team still talks about what Russell Wilson did the last time he played here – and what he said to his teammates immediately after.
Here’s why I think rookie running back C.J. Prosise will play for the first time in two months. He’s listed as questionable. That will be the pregame story we will watch for you.
Columnist Dave Boling thinks this could be a watershed game in regards to Seattle’s future.
Colleague Todd Milles, out with us this week at Seahawks headquarters, writes while fill-in free safety Steven Terrell has played well for the most part, there is only one Earl Thomas. The Falcons are going to attack that spot today. Seattle’s task is to mask that void and to keep it from being its fatal flaw.
Columnist John McGrath examines what affect that January 2013 playoff had on jump-starting the Seahawks’ current run of excellence. He notes Wilson is the only starter on offense remaining from that game. The quarterback was surprised this week when John pointed that out to him.
Now for my keys, and my pick. I think the Seahawks will win or lose the game with how successful Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark are hitting Ryan.
NFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF GAME
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (11-5-1) at ATLANTA FALCONS (11-5)
1:30 p.m. Saturday, Georgia Dome, Atlanta
TV: Ch. 13/FOX Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM
THE KEY FACE-OFF
Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Frank Clark vs. Matt Ryan
No team sacked and hit Atlanta’s quarterback more this season than the Seahawks’ defensive front did Oct. 16 in Seattle’s win over the Falcons: Four sacks and 13 hits. Bennett had five smacks on the QB, tied for his most since he became a Seahawk in 2013. Ryan ended up with his second-lowest yards passing per attempt this season in which he set the NFL record in that category. If Bennett, Avril (his fellow Pro Bowl defensive end) and Clark (10 sacks in his second season) can affect Ryan similarly this time, Ryan won’t be able to fully use his running backs on routes down the field or exploit Earl Thomas absence in the back of Seattle’s defense.
Russell Wilson is done wearing the brace he had on his left knee since late September’s sprain. 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 touchdowns and a career-low rating of 92.6. Ryan is likely to be voted the league’s most valuable player. Ryan just got named All-Pro for the first time, edging Tom Brady in the vote of 50 national panelists. His 9.26 yards per pass attempt was the highest in NFL history over a 16-game regular season. Ryan joined Brady and Aaron Rodgers as the only NFL players to throw for at least 3,500 yards in a season with 35 touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions. But Atlanta is 1-4 in the postseason with Ryan as their QB. Seattle in 8-3 in the playoffs with Wilson as their’s.
Thomas Rawls finally rejoined Seattle’s season last weekend. He rushed for a team-playoff-record 161 yards against the Lions. Marcel Reece has been a revelation as a fullback and pass catcher 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 more loaded than any time this season. Atlanta has the league’s most dynamic running-back duo. Davonta Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season. Tevin Coleman ran for 520 yards and eight touchdowns. They also combined for 85 receptions and more more TDs catching the ball.
Doug Baldwin followed his Seahawks-record-tying 94 catches in the regular season with 11 more last weekend. Paul Richardson made three amazing catches, one for a TD, filling in for injured Tyler Lockett. Something tells me Jermaine Kearse is going to be playoff clutch again in this one. Atlanta’s Julio Jones is All-World as well as an All-Pro for the second time. Mohamed Sanu had 59 catches and Taylor Gabriel is zooming fast, averaging 16.5 yards per catch.
Jimmy Graham is a huge weapon the Seahawks still haven’t fully unleashed in the playoffs; 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 deep down the field.
The Seahawks’ biggest, potential fatal weakness became a strength last weekend against Detroit with more man-on-man, straight-ahead blocking. Three first-time starters: undrafted college basketball player George Fant at left tackle, former guard and tackle Justin Britt at center and inconsistent first-round pick Germain Ifedi at right guard. Atlanta left tackle Jake Matthews ticked off Seahawks Pro Bowl 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 this season. The Falcons allowed 37 sacks of Ryan in 571 drop backs in the regular season, one every 15-plus times he tried to throw.
If Seahawks win, it’s going to be because of these guys. When Seattle beat Atlanta in October, Michael Bennett had a Seahawks career high-tying five hits on Ryan and the Seahawks hit him 13 times – more than any other Falcons foe. They sacked him four times; no one sacked him more in a game this season. Bennett, fellow Pro Bowl end Cliff Avril (career-high 11½ 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 in October in Seattle. Tackle Grady Jarrett is athletic and 305 pounds of trouble inside. End Adrian Clayborn is second on the Falcons with 4½ sacks. Dwight Freeney, at age 36, had three sacks and can still be an issue off the edge.
All-Pro Bobby Wagner and underappreciated K.J. Wright make the Seahawks uniquely equipped to handle Atlanta’s dynamic running backs. They are fast enough to cover down the field and big and strong enough to complete sure tackles in the open field. Vic Beasley has become the terror on Atlanta’s defense with 15½ sacks this season. 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 is missing a postseason for the first time in his career. His broken leg has changed the Seahawks’ vaunted "Legion of Boom" – and not for the better. It’s a huge void Ryan will attempt to exploit by targeting free-safety replacement Steven Terrell. Three-time All-Pro Richard Sherman is likely to shadow Julio Jones for at least part of the game, as he did in October. Jones had four catches on him then. Falcons safety Keanu Neal considers himself a protégé of Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. They trained together last summer. Chancellor considers him like a little brother. Atlanta lost Wilson High’s Desmond Trufant for the season in Week 9 to a torn pectoral. The Seahawks will target his replacement, second-year man Jalen Collins.
SPECIAL TEAMSDevin Hester, the NFL record holder with 19 career returns for touchdowns, 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 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.
Wilson is 8-3 in the playoffs. Ryan is 1-4. Seattle’s championship experience shows up for a wowing win.
Seahawks 28, Falcons 27