How much does playoff pedigree matter? That’ll be a big question when the divisional round of the NFL playoffs kicks off with a Saturday afternoon matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons. That’s because the Seahawks have an 8-3 playoff record with two Super Bowl appearances in quarterback Russell Wilson’s first five seasons, while the Falcons have just one playoff victory despite the fact this is their fifth postseason appearance with quarterback Matt Ryan.
So while the Falcons were the better team during the regular season and have home-field advantage as a result, they actually have a lot more to prove and arguably a lot more to lose on Saturday.
It should be noted, however, that Ryan’s lone playoff victory came against these Seahawks. That was back in 2012 — Wilson’s rookie season — when Atlanta beat Seattle 30-28 in a wild divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta actually led that game 20-0 at halftime and 27-7 in the fourth quarter before, Seattle scored three consecutive fourth-quarter touchdowns to take the lead and then Ryan completed two clutch passes in the final 25 seconds to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning 49-yard field goal.
We can only hope this one is just as exciting, especially considering the blowouts we had to deal with in the wild-card round.
Five things you need to know
1. Thanks in part to Ryan’s career year, the Falcons have the league’s No. 1 scoring offense. They averaged 6.7 yards per play, while nobody else in football averaged more than 6.4. But the Seahawks had the league’s No. 3 scoring defense and were one of only four teams to surrender 5.0 or fewer yards per play. They’ve held three of their last six opponents to seven or fewer points, while the Falcons have scored at least 28 points while averaging 36.7 per game the last six weeks. So yeah, unstoppable force vs. immovable object.
2. We know the Seattle pass rush is excellent — the Seahawks finished the regular season with the second-highest sack rate in the league, with Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett leading the way and Frank Clark and Bobby Wagner providing plenty of support. But according to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was the only quarterback with 250-plus dropbacks and zero interceptions under pressure. He and Wilson both took a lot of sacks, but both are very good under duress.
3. But Wilson has a lot less support in terms of pass protection. See, while Ryan will benefit from a stronger offensive line and a running game that averaged 4.6 yards per carry this season, Wilson is in trouble. With tackles George Fant and Garry Gilliam and guards Germain Ifedi and Mark Glowinski all struggling, Seattle surrendered 22 sacks during the final five weeks of the regular season and took three more sacks on wild-card weekend against a terrible Lions pass rush. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s Vic Beasley might be the hottest pass rusher in football. The second-year first-round pick has 14.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in his last 12 games. In order to keep Beasley from exploding, the Seahawks will have to get their inconsistent ground game going.
4. The Seahawks had just 19 takeaways during the regular season and didn’t force a turnover last week against Detroit. Against an Atlanta offense that had an NFC-low 11 turnovers during the regular season, their work will be cut out for them.
5. If not for a questionable no-call late, the Falcons probably would have beaten the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 6. And that was back when Seattle had superstar safety Earl Thomas, who intercepted Ryan in the fourth quarter that day. And again, that was in the Pacific Northwest. The Seahawks won just three games on the road this season, and if not for Blair Walsh they’d be mired in a three-game road playoff losing streak.
Prediction: The Seahawks also haven’t been consistent this year. They finished the season win-loss-win-loss-win-loss-win. They don’t have enough balance on offense and they’re not quite as dominant as we’re used to on defense. On the road, I can’t see them suddenly winning a third straight game. But you know this’ll be close. Falcons 27, Seahawks 21