ATLANTA (AP) — As with any rematch, there are certainly things that both teams learned about each other the first time around.
Then again, so much will be different when the Atlanta Falcons host Seattle in an NFC divisional playoff game Saturday.
Especially for the Seahawks.
Seattle found a running game in its playoff opener, and quarterback Russell Wilson appears as healthy as he’s been all season.
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Yet the defense looks a lot less imposing without safety Earl Thomas, out for the season with a broken leg.
Most significantly, this game will be at the Georgia Dome, costing the Seahawks perhaps the most imposing home-field advantage in the NFL. A 26-24 victory over the Falcons in Week 6 was at the Link.
“We’ve got the best fans in the world,” said Wilson, no doubt mindful that Seattle is 8-1 at home this season but just 3-4-1 on the road. “We don’t take that for granted.”
In addition to having the fans on their side for the rematch, the Falcons look a bit different on the field.
The young defense, with as many as four rookie starters, has grown up considerably over the latter part of the season, even after a season-ending injury to its best cornerback, Desmond Trufant.
Vic Beasley, in particular, established himself as one of the league’s most dominant pass rushers.
“Both teams now are a better version of themselves than when we played back then,” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn, a former defensive coordinator in Seattle.
The Atlanta offense has been on point all season. Led by quarterback Matt Ryan, one of the leading contenders for MVP, the Falcons (11-5) romped to the NFC South title and a first-round bye behind the league’s highest-scoring offense, averaging nearly 34 points a game.
Ryan has been especially accurate on his deep throws, an area of vulnerability for the Seahawks without their star safety. In the first meeting, Thomas had one of just seven interceptions Ryan threw all season.
“His accuracy is phenomenal,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “He puts it in all of the right spots.”
Here are some things to watch for Saturday:
POSTSEASON BLUES: While Ryan is coming off the best season of his career, completing 69.9 percent for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, his career mark in the playoffs is just 1-4.
In an interesting twist, that lone postseason win came against Seattle during the divisional round four years ago, when he guided the Falcons to a last-second, 30-28 victory after the Falcons blew a 20-point lead. Ryan said the past won’t be a factor in this game. “I feel like I’m playing my best,” he said, “better than I ever have.”
RUNNING WILD: Seattle’s inconsistent run game got a big — and surprising — boost out of Thomas Rawls in last week’s wild-card victory over Detroit. Rawls rushed for 161 yards, a franchise playoff record that caught everyone off guard after the running backs produced just two 100-yard games during the entire regular season and the Seahawks didn’t even rush for 100 yards as a team in the final three games. That 100-yard mark is a big number. Under Carroll, the Seahawks have just one playoff victory when failing to reach triple figures on the ground.
SPREADING IT AROUND: Julio Jones had seven catches for 139 yards against Seattle during the regular season, and Atlanta fans are still seething about an apparent pass interference penalty on Richard Sherman that wasn’t called late in the game. While the Jones-vs.-Sherman matchup is sure to be a focal point, the Falcons have shown they can win even when opponents double up on their All-Pro receiver. Ryan has thrown TDs to an NFL-record 13 players, and the passing game is at full strength with the return of speedy receiver Taylor Gabriel and tight end Austin Hooper from injuries that kept them out late in the season.
WHERE’S JIMMY? It would be a good time to get tight end Jimmy Graham reacquainted with the Seattle offense. In Week 6, he had six catches for 89 yards and took advantage of openings in the middle of Atlanta’s defense. But over the past five games including the playoffs, Graham has just 11 receptions and one touchdown. He’s always played well against the Falcons going back to his days in New Orleans, totaling 55 receptions, eight touchdowns and five games of at least 80 yards receiving over 11 matchups.
KEEP AN EYE ON HESTER: Devin Hester returns to the Georgia Dome for the first time since being released by the Falcons. Signed before the playoffs to jumpstart Seattle’s return game, he had the last of his NFL-record 20 touchdown returns during a Pro Bowl season with the Falcons in 2014. He was released last summer after battling injuries, but Atlanta is mindful of his potential impact on special teams. “He’s had terrific history of making big plays, so we certainly know what Devin is capable of,” Quinn said.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
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AP Sports Writers Tim Booth in Seattle and Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this report.