RENTON This time of year, NFL press conference all sound basically the same. A player or coach gets asked about many facets of the upcoming opponent. Because it’s the final four of the conference playoffs, that foe and its facets are excellent.
So, essentially, the answers to these questions always involve a form of “to be the best you have to beat the best.”
Except, that is, when Michael Bennett is answering the questions.
Asked on Tuesday if he welcomes the challenge of playing league MVP candidate Matt Ryan and the high-flying Atlanta Falcons, the NFL’s highest-scoring offense since the old “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams, Seattle’s Pro Bowl defensive end went vintage deadpan.
“I prefer to play against a terrible team,” Bennett said, “because it makes the game a lot easier.”
He laughed. So did everyone in the interview at Seahawks headquarters.
All know nothing will be easy for Seattle (11-5-1) about Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff at the Georgia Dome.
Including, for Bennett, seeing Atlanta left tackle Jake Matthews again.
On Oct. 16 at CenturyLink Field, Bennett had five hits on Ryan in the first 2½ quarters as the Seahawks built a 17-3 lead on Atlanta. Then the Falcons hit him back — in his knee. Bennett left the game and did not return after Matthews, a fellow former Texas A&M Aggie, cut blocked him in the right knee. The injury happened on Ryan’s 10-yard touchdown throw to Mohamed Sanu that tied the game at 17 in the third quarter — and before Seattle rallied back to win 26-24.
”A (expletive) play,” Bennett called it afterward — multiple times.
Bennett came back to play the following week, but he wasn’t right. He plaeyd all five quarters of the overtime tie at Arizona then had arthroscopic knee surgery. He missed five games before returning for the Seahawks’ win over Carolina on Dec. 4.
Bennett didn’t have a sack in his first three games following the surgery. He has one in each of his last three games, including in last weekend’s 26-6 win over Detroit in the wild-card round. He has six sacks in 11 regular-season and one postseason game, after a career-high 10 sacks while playing every game of the 2015 season. Last week he was voted into the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year.
Heading into Saturday’s rematch with Matthews in Atlanta, Bennett took a higher road.
“I don’t have many reasons to be angry these days,” he said, with a wry smile.
In fact, he has 31 1/2 million reasons not to be angry right now.
Two weeks ago the Seahawks rewarded Bennett with a three-year contract extension worth $31.5 million, with $17.5 million guaranteed. It’s a fine haul for a 31-year-old with three daughters; he constantly reminds us about the weddings for which he must someday pay.
Asked if he has talked to Matthews since the cut block three months ago, Bennett said: “I don’t really talk to him.”
This preseason Bennett made a point to say -- probably jokingly, of course -- that he wanted to have more of an inner peace this season.
How’s that going?
“My Zen is an every-day practice. It’s getting there, though,” he said. “My wife would tell you I’m getting better.”
This could disrupt his Zen:
The Falcons (11-5, coming off a first-round bye) finished the regular season with 540 points, an average of 33.8 per game. That tied Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and the 2000 Rams for the seventh-most in an NFL season. No other team came within 71 points of Atlanta’s total this season. The league average this season was 364 points; Seattle scored 354.
The Falcons scored 30 or more points 11 times in 16 games, third-most in any NFL season. They scored 40 points five times, second-most all-time. Atlanta led the NFL with 6.7 yards per play and scored 3.2 points per drive.
Ryan just got named All-Pro for the first time, edging Tom Brady in the vote of 50 national panelists. Ryan’s 9.26 yards per pass attempt was the highest in NFL history over a 16-game regular season. He was the league’s top thrower in the regular season with 38 touchdowns, just seven interceptions and a 117.1 rating. Those were the most TD passes, fewest interceptions and by far highest passer rating in his nine NFL seasons. He joined Brady and Aaron Rodgers as the only NFL players to throw for at least 3,500 yards in a season with fewer than 10 interceptions.
Julio Jones had 83 catches for an NFL-best 100.6 yards per game. His 27 catches of 20 or more yards and five receptions of a least 40 yards were both second most in the NFL. Jones had seven catches on nine targets for 139 yards and a 36-yard touchdown against the Seahawks in October.
But wait, there’s more. The Falcons don’t just throw. Devonta Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns in the regular season. Freeman also caught 54 passes. No. 2 running back Tevin Coleman ran for eight more scores -- while averaging 13.6 per catch on 31 receptions.
“You think about Julio Jones, one of the greatest receivers in the game right now. I’m pretty sure he’ll be in the Hall of Fame,” Bennett said. “You look at Devonta Freeman, this guy is just awesome. He can catch the ball off the backfield. He can do so many great things. Then you say, ‘What about the second-string running back?’ They got Coleman. He can break a big run at any time.
“Then you say, ‘OK, what about the quarterback?’ MVP.”
Ryan completed 27 of 42 passes for 335 yards three touchdowns, one interception in that Atlanta loss at Seattle Oct. 16. The Seahawks sacked Ryan four times, tied for the most he got dumped in a game this season. Bennett’s five hits on Ryan that day tied for his most in Bennett’s four seasons with Seattle.
The Falcons were 24th in allowing sacks this season. Bennett along with fellow Pro Bowl end Cliff Avril and emerging pass rusher Frank Clark (10 sacks in the regular season but inactive for that first Falcons game because of a hamstring injury) are keys to Seattle beating the latest excellent team standing in its way of a third Super Bowl in four years.
“They have so many great players,” Bennett said, finally sounding like all the other players in press conferences this time of year. “It makes the game very interesting -- and it also makes it a great challenge.
“It’s one of those things where number one meets number one. And it makes it really good.”