Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Condotta breaks down Saturday’s NFC Divisional playoff game between the Seahawks and Falcons in Atlanta.
It’s time to review the position groups of the Seahawks and Falcons heading into the divisional playoff game Saturday, and take a look at which team has the edge.
The statistical line for this season gives a significant edge to Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, an MVP candidate with a career-high 38 touchdowns and a career-low seven interceptions. Seattle’s Russell Wilson has battled through an injury-plagued season. Wilson, though, has a huge upper hand when it comes to playoff pedigree, having already won eight games in 11 postseason starts. Ryan, conversely, is just 1-4 — the one victory coming against Seattle in the divisional round following the 2012 season. Still, give a slight nod to Ryan, whose 117.1 passer rating this season was the fifth best in NFL history.
The Falcons’ two-headed monster of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 1,599 rushing yards — more than Seattle had as a team — and 19 touchdowns as well as a combined 883 yards receiving and five touchdowns. Freeman made the Pro Bowl this year with 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns. Thomas Rawls looked like Thomas Rawls again with a Seattle postseason record 161 yards against the Lions last Saturday. The Seahawks might also get back rookie C.J. Prosise, who has not played since Nov. 20 because of a fractured shoulder blade. Neither Rawls nor Prosise played in the first game against Atlanta. Seattle did a nice job on Freeman (40 yards) and Coleman (10 yards) in that game.
Atlanta’s passing attack is aided by Julio Jones, who had 1,409 receiving yards this season, leading the NFL with 100.6 yards per game. Mohamed Sanu has been a solid complementary receiver in his first year with the team (59 catches, 653 yards) and Atlanta has gotten a nice late-season boost from Taylor Gabriel, its third-year player who had 29 catches in the past 10 games, including six touchdowns. Paul Richardson has filled in capably for the injured Tyler Lockett so far and looms as a key for the Seahawks to try to keep up with the Falcons. And then there is Doug Baldwin, coming off an 11-catch game, which at this point makes him seem easy to take for granted.
Atlanta is without Jacob Tamme, who was the team’s starter against Seattle in October but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury two weeks later. The Falcons have a pair of former Stanford players — Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo — as the top two tight ends now. They combined this season for 32 catches for 535 yards and five touchdowns (Toilolo scored on a 46-yarder against the Seahawks). Seattle fans still endlessly debate the team’s use of Jimmy Graham, but his 65 receptions this season was the most in franchise history for a tight end.
The much-maligned Seattle offensive line had maybe its best game of the season against Detroit, opening the door for 177 rushing yards on 38 attempts. Seattle will need much of the same against the Falcons to keep Atlanta’s offense off the field (Detroit managed just 50 plays, the fewest this season against Seattle). A key matchup will be that of right tackle Garry Gilliam against Atlanta edge rusher Vic Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks this season.
The Seahawks will have a different look up front than the first time, a game Frank Clark missed due to injury and when Michael Bennett got hurt in the third quarter. Clark and Bennett are back to full health to join with Cliff Avril to give the Seahawks a potent pass-rush trio that will have to get consistent pressure on Matt Ryan. Vic Beasley officially is listed as a linebacker but he’ll often line up as an edge rusher. The rest of Atlanta’s defensive front is underwhelming, however, other than second-year defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
Seattle’s duo of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and strongside linebacker K.J. Wright is becoming one of the best in team history, and all their skills in run and pass defense will be needed against the Falcons. Rookie middle linebacker Deion Jones has emerged as a playmaker for the Falcons, returning two interceptions for touchdowns and leading the Falcons with 75 tackles.
Seattle played the first game against Atlanta without Kam Chancellor, with Kelcie McCray getting his first start of the season. It was McCray who was part of the miscommunication that led to Richard Sherman’s sideline outburst. Now Seattle will play without free safety Earl Thomas, who came up huge in the first game with a late interception that gave Seattle the lead with 1:57 left. Now, Seattle will have to play with Steven Terrell manning the middle of the defense. It will be interesting to see how much the Seahawks use Sherman on Julio Jones. A key to Atlanta’s improved defense has been the play of rookie safety Keanu Neal, who has drawn comparisons to Chancellor, and spent part of the offseason working out with Chancellor in Virginia.
It’s becoming a broken record to say Seattle’s kicking teams have been unusually spotty this season with Stephen Hauschka now having missed seven points after touchdown following another miss against the Lions. Give Atlanta a kicking edge thanks to 41-year-old Matt Bryant, who hit 56 of 57 PATs and 34 of 37 field goals, making all but one of 29 attempts inside the 50.
This is a battle of two teams with a lot of similarities with Atlanta’s Dan Quinn having spent three years as an assistant under Pete Carroll in Seattle. The defenses are particularly close in style and scheme. This is the first postseason game for Quinn in his second year as coach and the Falcons will be in an unfamiliar position as a favorite and with high expectations after going 11-5. Seattle is 9-4 in the playoffs under Carroll, but they are 0-3 in divisional playoff games on the road.