Seahawks / Falcons Divisional Playoff features strength on strength

He said / she said: Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons

The Hit Job editors julian rogers and Jessica Ridpath discuss and predict the Divisional Round matchup between the Seattle Seahawks (11–5–1) and the Atlanta Falcons (11–5).

When: 1:35 p.m., Pacific, Saturday, January 14, 2017
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta

Rogers: Since the Falcons and the Seahawks met in week six, a 26–24 squeaker with a controversial non-call at the end involving Richard Sherman and Julio Jones, both teams stumbled the following week. Atlanta lost in overtime to the San Diego Chargers and the Seahawks earned a 6–6 overtime tie against the Arizona Cardinals.

Since then, the Falcons managed a 7–2 record to close out the season, while the Seahawks pounded out a 6–4 regular season record. Despite playing in the NFL’s weakest division, the Seahawks still stumbled more on their journey to the #3 seed in the NFC Playoffs. They arrive in Atlanta having had a fairly easy time against the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.

Two new narratives emerged from that game, that being Thomas Rawls returning to top form and Paul Richardson emerging as a dangerous, big-play threat for the first time in his career. Jess, did the playoff tune up game help the Seahawks be more ready for the rested Falcons?

Ridpath: Absolutely. The Hawks’ performance on offense should be a big confidence booster heading into Atlanta. After three games in a row in which Rawls netted less than two yards per carry, he bounced back big time, with a whopping 161 yards on 27 carries — a franchise post-season record. It was reminiscent of the Seattle of old and a sign that the blue birds might finally become “the team they’ve been trying to be all season.”

With Richardson’s highlight-reel catches, Doug Baldwin’s 104 receiving yards, and Russel Wilson’s 119.3 passer rating, the Seahawks’ offense was firing on all cylinders — all made possible by an offensive line that finally showed up in a way they haven’t since Seattle shocked New England on the road in week 10. I think the big question heading into next week is whether the o-line can keep up this level of play for (gasp!) two whole games in a row. The good news? Atlanta’s defense ranks no better than Detroit’s (25th overall, 17th versus the rush, 28th against the pass).

Atlanta’s offense, however, will present a much stiffer challenge. Last week, I predicted the Seahawks’ Earl-Thomasless secondary would have trouble with Matt Stafford and his big arm. Not so much — thanks in part to no less than four dropped passes among his receivers. I can’t see that happening with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu on the field. (Sanu may have struggled with drops in the past, but he and Jones have just one each this season.) Then there’s dual-threat running back Devonta Freeman to contend with. In the regular season, Freeman added 462 yards and two touchdowns in the air to an already impressive 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.

And let’s not forget that Matt Ryan ended the regular season as the #2 quarterback in the league. It’s an impressive arsenal that will give the Seahawks’ defense the toughest challenge they’ve faced in a while. Julian, what do you make of their chances?

Rogers: It was close last time. I expect it to be close again. The home field advantage for Atlanta is really big. Not so much because the Falcons have a big edge at home (only 5–3 this season), but because Seattle is a sub .500 road team (3–4–1).

The blue birds are the only remaining playoff team in the NFC with a sub .500 road record in 2016.

If there is an under-appreciated team in the playoffs, it’s the Falcons. But you made a great case for them to be taken very, very seriously, at least on offense.

When the Falcons have the ball, it will be a case of strength on strength. The Seahawks, despite losing Thomas, still rank eighth in pass defense. The Falcons lost in Seattle when Julio Jones had a very Julio-esque day, (7 receptions for 139 yards, 1 TD) matched up often with Richard Sherman.

If Julio can do it in Seattle, he can do it again at home after a week’s extra rest. The X-factor in the Falcons’ game plan will be Freeman, who you lauded above for his productive season. He didn’t have much impact against Seattle (12 rushes for 40 yards, 3 receptions for 10 yards; zero TDs). If he breaks out to the level of his 2016 averages (4.8 YPC, 67 rush yards per game + 29 receiving yards per game) he not only would have been the difference in Seattle, but will likely be the deciding factor on Saturday in Atlanta.

Yards from scrimmage aside, he is a hybrid running back / receiver scoring machine. Freeman collected 13 touchdowns in the regular season (two by pass). For comparison, that adds up to more than Baldwin (7), Rawls (3), Alex Collins (1), C.J. Prosise (1) and Troymaine Pope (0) combined. The Seahawks wisely schemed to stop Freeman in the last meeting. If they can do it again, they can seriously blunt the charge of the NFL’s №2 offense.

The Falcons are reportedly as healthy as they’ve been all season. Julio Jones is still listed with a toe injury but is expected to be full-go. The rest of their entire roster practiced on Tuesday.

In large part, this game will be determined by the Seahawks that aren’t there — and their replacements. Christine Michael scored two touchdowns on 21 touches against Atlanta. Tyler Lockett was not much of a factor with five touches for 25 yards. He became more of a factor later in the season. And, of course, Earl Thomas snared the game’s lone interception and ran the defense.

None of these three are available, but if Rawls this week is the Rawls of last week, Michael has been more than replaced. And if Paul Richardson is the Paul Richardson of last week, Lockett has been more than replaced. And if Steven Terrell is … well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Backup offensive singer Meatloaf gets the Seahawks.

Another player to keep an eye on is DeShawn Shead, who had a very active, up-and-down outing against Atlanta. He made seven tackles plus one assist. However, Ryan threw for 335 yards and spread touchdowns out not only to Julio Jones, but also to Mohamed Sanu and whatever a Levine Toilolo is.

Jess, who do you see as a player that will have the most impact on the game’s outcome? And as a bonus question, what supreme being (or plant or igneous rock) will you and your fellow Olympia new-age hippies be praying/vibing to for Seahawkian good luck? Any new deities we should be aware of?

Ridpath: Here’s an answer to both your questions at once: If I had a football shrine at home (which I don’t — I’m not that kind of hippie), I’d be paying homage to the Gods of the Offensive Line.

The Church of the Holy Hog

Between Wilson, Rawls, and a talented receiving corps, Seattle certainly has enough offensive firepower to get the best of almost any defense. But it all hinges on the o-line’s ability to protect Wilson and open holes for Rawls. If the line is the same line they were last week, Seattle has a fighting chance. If they aren’t, victory will rest on a wing and a prayer.

Let’s say the Seahawks offense does show up in top form. Let’s say they manage to score more than 30 points — something they’ve only done five times this season, and only once in the past month (in their 34–31 loss to the Cardinals). It still might not be enough: Atlanta closed out the season with four straight wins, scoring 42, 41, 33, and 38 points respectively. Seattle’s defense will not only need to stem this tide with some big stops on third down, they’ll probably have to force a turnover or two to keep their team in it.

I expect they’ll pressure Ryan early and try to get him off his game. One or two first-quarter sacks from Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, or Michael Bennett would certainly help send the momentum in the Seahawks’ direction. An early pick-six would be huge, and I think we’ll see some even-more-aggressive-than-usual play from Seattle’s secondary. That can be dangerous territory, however: Sherman got away with a potentially game-deciding non-call the last time these two teams met. He probably won’t be so lucky this time.

Julian, I’m sure you’ll recall that I picked the Seahawks to lose at home last week. After watching them dismantle Detroit, I will gladly eat my words. And if this week’s game were in Seattle, I’d be picking them to win. But it’s not. I think the blue birds will give the Falcons a run for their money — and it’ll be close, but not quite enough. I predict we’ll see a nail-biter that comes down to a game-winning drive from Ryan in the final few minutes. Prediction: Seattle 27, Atlanta 31.

Rogers: I hate to agree with you so often. Or at all, for that matter. But I concur. This will be a close one and if it were in Seattle I’d pick it the other way too. I won’t be shocked if Seattle pulls off a win since they are more playoff tested of recent, but I think Atlanta gets this one. Atlanta 30, Seattle 24.

Owning up

Here’s what we were right and wrong about last week.

What he got right: The game winner. I’m 10–7 on my picks for the Seahawks regular and post-season. I got all my Wild Card picks correct, like most everyone, since they went to each of the home teams.

What he got wrong: I suggested Detroit’s offense was about equal to Seattle’s, based on scoring averages. Not in this game, they weren’t. The overmatched Lions only put up six points. I also thought Russell Wilson’s running would be a big factor. Wilson only rushed three times for minus-three yards.

What she got right: I predicted that Steven Hauschka would miss either a field goal or a point-after attempt. He obliged by bouncing an extra point off the goal post in the 4th quarter. I also said the Packers would enjoy a comfortable victory over the Giants. 38–13 is comfy like fuzzy pajamas.

What she got wrong: The game winner, dropping me back to below .500 at 8–9, two games behind my esteemed colleague. (To his credit, Julian hasn’t gloated even once. He’s a better man than I am.) I thought Hauschka’s miss would mean something in the game’s outcome. It didn’t. But, combined with his many other whiffs this season, it’s still a cause for concern if the Seahawks post-season journey continues.

Fact: 10–7 is far better than 8–9 — Author unknown.

Julian Rogers and Jessica Ridpath

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