Just so you’re all aware, the original title of this piece was going to be Atlanta Falcons vs Seattle Seahawks Episode II: Attack of the Jones, but I really feel like that would really discredit me as a respectable mind in the NFL world.
I’ve been writing these previews for about a month now. Just about all of them have become more and more aware that the Falcons, my Falcons, that won only 2 games out of a possible 9 down the stretch last season, would see a long overdue return to Playoff football. It may seem silly to many, but this is really exciting. I’m excited. The occasion excites me. The build up excites me. But what excites me most of all is the match up.
After all, it was inevitable, wasn’t it? After a close run thriller at CenturyLink Field all the way back in week 6, it’s always seemed like the Atlanta Falcons would face the Seattle Seahawks again. The way the season played out, it’s almost like fate intervened to lead to this moment. A narrative rich match-up that intrigues far more than anything the wildcards threw at us last week, this is a game that NFL fans should get very, very excited about.
A Rematch 13 Weeks In The Making
The wheels of this game were set into motion, as I mentioned only 44 words ago, all the way back in week 6. Some of you of a Falcons persuasion may recall the game in its entirety. Some of you may recall moments of it. But something we can all recall is, in the final seconds of the game, on fourth down, Matt Ryan launches a pass some 30 yards to Julio Jones. Jones, who can catch everything, fails to complete catch the ball as a result of some questionable play by Richard Sherman. Sherman, fuming for most of the second half after seeing his side throw a 17-3 lead at half time away, pins Julio’s arm down. The man-machine is ILLEGALLY STOPPED from completing the pass.
The pass that will have not only extended the drive, but meant the Falcons were only 15 or so yards from a game winning field goal attempt. The Falcons were denied an opportunity to win that day, and to make a statement league-wide that they were to be taken seriously.
There’s No Place Like Dome
From that day forward, these Atlanta Falcons changed. They vowed never to put the game in the hands of anyone else (especially the officials) again. From then on, despite a blip in Philadelphia, the Falcons aimed to outscore everyone they faced. For the most part, they succeeded.
But this is a fanbase that doesn’t forgive, and it certainly doesn’t forget. All week my twitter timeline has been filled with Falcons fans demanding their peers get down to the Georgia Dome early, and get loud when they’re there. This is more than just a playoff game, this is possibly the last chance the Atlanta faithful will have to blow the roof off the dome, before a controlled explosion does that job for them.
The Dome, of course, played the role of host a mere four years ago, when these sides met at this very stage of the play offs. Oh yes; this preview is more than a look ahead; it’s a glance into the past also.
What a feeling, what a night…
Atlanta headed into that game with far more to prove than they do now. Despite losing to three sides that reached the Super Bowl that year, Matt Ryan had a reputation of choking in the big occasions. The 2008 Arizona Cardinals, the 2010 Green Bay Packers, and the 2011 New York Giants had all bested a Matt Ryan led Falcons side in the playoffs, and the idea was this is entirely Matt Ryan’s fault.
This game meant a lot to a lot of people. Tony Gonzalez, the best tight end to ever play the game, had never won a playoff game up until this tie. Mike Smith, former Head Coach of the Falcons and the WINNINGEST COACH IN FALCONS HISTORY, had never won a playoff game up until this point. Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas, had billed themselves as the most dangerous receiving trio in football. They needed that win, they all did.
And they got off to the perfect start, racing out to a 20-0 lead at half time. They even held the game in the third quarter, going into the fourth 27-7 up. And then something horrible happened. Playoff Matt, someone I’d spent hours convincing others didn’t exist, appeared. Interceptions to no one and failures of third down led to three Seattle touchdowns. 28-27. It was over. It was sickening.
But they don’t call him Matty Ice for nothing. Like a phoenix from the flames, the pro-bowl calibre Quarterback rose to the occasion. He was given 25 seconds and two time outs to march into field goal range (sound familiar?) and win the Falcons their first playoff game since 2004. Here’s what happened:
'12 Divisional Round.
Seattle takes a 1-point lead. 25 seconds left.
— NFL (@NFL) January 11, 2017
I remember this game like it was yesterday. The elation of the start to the agony of the finish. Only to see it come back round again. It was the greatest moment I’ve experienced as a fan of this side, and, hopefully, I’ll get get to experience how I felt at that moment again (just not in this game, please…save it for next month).
I could go on and on about 2012/13, but it would be really boring. Those are the three major storylines surrounding this match-up, and, while there are some minor plot lines bubbling under (Dan Quinn vs Pete Carroll: the Apprentice vs the Master, in particular) that I could go into, it would lead to the longest article on this fine website, and I don’t want that title just yet.
The Visiting Party…
For Atlanta to win, it’s gonna take a lot. Seattle may not be the side they were a couple of years back, but they’re still damn good. Despite the losing the superstar free safety to broken leg vs the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s foolish to argue that Seattle are anything less than stellar defensively. That being said, you could argue that they are more susceptible to big plays.
Earl Thomas is a true ball-hawk, as Matt Ryan very much knows throughout his career. However, without the permanent-pick threat on the field, Ryan’s accuracy over both middle and deep routes present a real opportunity to test Steven Terrell, who’s been stepped into the breach in Thomas’ absence.
Seattle looked genuinely dominant in their Wild Card match-up, albeit against a Lions outfit both battered AND bruised. Both Bobby Wagner and Michael Bennett (big name players with big game) took over the Detroit o-line, and forced their offense into some pretty tough situations. Combine that with the big play-ability of your Baldwin’s, Kearse’s, and Richardson’s, with Russell “The Hustle” Wilson under centre, and Seattle gave Detroit absolutely no chance to get anything going.
Thomas Rawls, a man who averaged 1.5 yards a carry vs the, frankly, atrocious defences of Arizona and San Francisco, broke out for 161 yards. Mini-Beast Mode himself went from non-entity to dangerous weapon in one performance. Yes, Detroit were physically and mentally fatigued coming off a draining loss to Green Bay, but they’re still a playoff team. Atlanta must be wary.
Where it’s won
For Atlanta to succeed, they need to stick to the game plan that landeded them the second seed in the NFC. Emphasis has to be on this offense, and the game plan has to be watertight. Starting fast is the key, here. Fortunately, this offense is the only side in history to score a touchdown on 6 consecutive opening drives. You don’t start must faster than 7 points on the board, and the Falcons may need to make it 7 in a row if they want to best the Seahawks.
Additionally, establishing the run is key. Freeman and Coleman are wonderful pass-catchers out of the backfield, but it’s all for nothing if they can’t gain yards on the ground. This receiving game almost requires the run game to succeed to open up the screen and play-action parts of the playbook we’ve become so accustomed to. Freeman struggled on the ground in Seattle, being limited to 40 yards off 12 carries. Though you have to remember the Falcons were down big, early. After a monster game on the ground against the Saints in week 17, Kyle Shanahan should look to committing to the run early .
Please don’t be bad on defence
Defensively, STOPPING the run is key. While Seattle’s run game is a far cry from the days of Marshawn Lynch (Christine Michael is the teams leading rusher…and he plays for the Packers, currently), Thomas Rawls did step up in a big way last week. With the Falcons run defence as soft as it is, expect Dan Quinn to dial up some safety blitzes involving Keanu Neal to nullify this potential threat. That said, the Seattle o-line is bad. It could be suggested, then, that Rawls’ breakout was the exception, rather than the rule. Either way it’s certainly something that needs to be watched.
Speaking of that appalling o-line: with breakout star Vic Beasley finishing the season leading the league in most sacks, you’d expect the second year edge rusher to make life difficult for Russell Wilson. While he does have a career filled with plays extended, Beasley has the speed to close Wilson. If pressure can be generated by him, Adrian Clayborn, and Dwight Freeney, this offensive line can be broken. And both Wilson and the run game can be nullified.
My gut feeling is, with it being a revenge game, the Falcons will come out on top. Kam Chancellor, who missed the week 6 match up, is back in the Seattle fold. But he’s more a thumper as opposed to a threat to our receiving game. And while Wilson is as good as anyone with his back against the wall. But you have to question, with this offensive line in front of him, whether he make enough plays to outscore the Falcons offense. In a close one, the Falcons move onto the Championship Game.
Score Prediction: 33-27