The most anticipated matchup of the divisional round of the NFL playoffs might be the Atlanta Falcons’ No. 1 scoring offense against the Seattle Seahawks’ No. 3 scoring defense. But the game between the two teams may be decided when the ball is in Russell Wilson’s hand.
When the two met in Week 6, the Seahawks edged the Falcons in Seattle, 26-24. But both teams have played a lot of football since then, and though Wilson has already led the Seahawks to eight playoff wins in his young career, he might not have enough talent around him to go into the Georgia Dome on Saturday and end the Falcons’ season.
The most obvious change to either team has been the Seahawks’ loss of safety Earl Thomas; his five-year Pro Bowl streak ended when he missed five of the Seahawks’ last six regular-season games with injuries. With him patrolling the backfield, the Seahawks allowed just 16.4 points per game. In the Seahawks’ five regular-season games without him, opponents averaged 22.4 points, including 34 points in a home capitulation to the already-eliminated Arizona Cardinals.
But as much as the Seahawks have missed Thomas, it is their offense that has struggled with explosiveness and consistency all season. The 26-6 final score of last week’s wild card game against the Detroit Lions might make it look as though the Seahawks are back to business as usual. But going into the fourth quarter the score was just 10-6.
While the Seahawks’ offensive line earned praise for its dominant run-blocking performance against Detroit, it also allowed slumping Lions pass-rusher Ezekiel Ansah to register two sacks, as many as he tallied throughout the regular season. The Seahawks will have a much tougher task on Saturday when they face the Falcons’ Vic Beasley, who had 15.5 sacks in the regular season.
Tailback Thomas Rawls set a franchise playoff rushing record against the Lions, but going into the rematch with the Falcons there’s little depth behind him. Christine Michael, the Seahawks’ top rusher in the first Atlanta game, now plays for the Green Bay Packers. Head coach Pete Carroll told reporters that C.J. Procise, who has been out since Week 11 with a shoulder injury, will be a game-time decision; fifth-round rookie Alex Collins would be the only option behind Rawls if Procise can’t go.
Between Michael, tailback C.J. Spiller and receiver/returner Tyler Lockett, 43 percent of the Seahawks’ 333 total yards in Week 6 were produced by players no longer on the Seahawks active roster, and the Falcons still outgained them 362-333 in that game. Wilson targeted wideouts on just 43.2 percent of his attempts; according to Pro Football Reference’s charting, he attempted only two passes deeper than 14 yards all day. He threw no touchdowns.
The lack of deep passing that day was partly by design, to keep opposing pass-rushers off the banged-up Wilson.
“We’ve been careful in how we would expose Russ,” head coach Pete Carroll later told the team’s official site. “He was begging us to do more and all that, but we were trying to do the right thing by him, and he was doing phenomenal things just to play for the last two months.” But Wilson’s adjusted yards-per-attempt didn’t increase meaningfully after that interview.
Though three rushing touchdowns got Seattle the points they needed to win in Week 6, they might not have happened if the Falcons hadn’t set them up: Ryan’s sack-fumble on his own nine-yard line led to the game’s first score; his interception near midfield set up the last one.
Even then, it almost wasn’t enough. The Seahawks’ final go-ahead field goal still left Ryan and company with a 1:57 to drive for a game-winning score; a controversial fourth-down no-call sent them packing:
Since that play, however, the Falcons spent the season improving — and proving themselves the better team.
In Football Outsiders’ Weighted DVOA, which prioritizes recent performance, the Falcons are the No. 4-ranked overall team at 19.8 percent; the Seahawks are ranked 14th at 4.7 percent. While the Seahawks’ offense ranked 17th in both season-long (-2.7 percent) and weighted (-2.1 percent) DVOA, the Falcons’ defense rises from 27th (8.1 percent) to 22nd (5.6 percent) when recent games are more heavily weighted.
Now Wilson will have go on the road and score more points against the improved Falcons than Ryan can score against the Seahawks’ struggling defense.
Check out our latest NFL playoff predictions.