Jan 6, 2013; Landover, MD, USA; Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas (29) returns an interception intended for Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon (88) during the second quarter of the NFC Wild Card playoff game against the at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
In what Chris Berman keeps insisting on calling “the best weekend in pro football” (to be fair it’s been pretty damn good so far) the Seahawks make the long trek out to Atlanta to face the number one seeded Falcons. The Falcons are a formidable foe, particularly at home, and despite the love the Seahawks are getting in the national media (something that I find so foreign that it makes me uncomfortable) this is an extraordinarily difficult test. After winning their first road playoff game in decades last week it seems almost greedy to hope for another road victory but as this team has evolved so have the expectations. The idea of the Seahawks going into Atlanta and winning a playoff game would have seemed virtually impossible halfway through this year and now we are at a point where it’s what many prognosticators are expecting. Whatever the result, the battle of the birds figures to be a close, hard fought contest. Let’s take a look at some of the big time matchups.
Matchup #1: Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner vs. Roddy White and Julio Jones
This has been the most talked about matchup all week and for good reason. 12 feet and 4 inches and 421 pounds worth of Pro Bowl receivers figure to do battle with 12 feet 7 inches and 416 pounds worth of Pro Bowl cornerbacks (Sherman hasn’t technically made a Pro Bowl appearance but his worthiness is obvious) in a physical battle for the ages. White and Jones combined for 17 TD’s in 2012 while the Seattle CB duo had 11 INT’s, even with Browner missing four games. The Falcons receivers have been extraordinarily productive this year but they haven’t faced a challenge like the one Seattle presents yet this year. This is a classic unstoppable force- immovable object situation with major repercussions in the game. With the Seahawks down Chris Clemons the pass rush for Seattle won’t be the same and there will be even more pressure on the dynamic Sherman-Browner pairing. You quite simply can’t shut out White and Jones but look for the Seahawks to do as good a job as humanly possible behind the efforts of their elite corners.
Matchup #2: Russell Okung vs. John Abraham
Tomorrow the Seahawks’ Pro Bowl LT faces an intriguing test in John Abraham. Abraham has being waging a surprisingly successful war against Father Time, remaining an effective pass rusher into his age 34 season. The Falcons have done a good job limiting Abraham’s snaps to keep him fresh but you can count on seeing Abraham on every third down. Okung has been excellent this year but Abraham will have the advantage of home field which has been significant for him this year (7 sacks of his 10 this year have come at home). Abraham is tiny compared to Okung (6-4 256) and as a result the Seahawks should look to run at him, behind Okung, whenever possible in this game. Additionally Abraham is dealing with an ankle injury is questionable for this game (although you’d have to think he’s going to play). There is a chance that could sap his effectiveness rushing the passer, although I think he remains a significant challenge for Seattle’s LT, who has struggled with smaller pass rushers, like Sam Acho, at times this year. Look for Okung to contain Abraham even if he can’t erase him completely in this one.
Matchup #3: Earl Thomas vs. Matt Ryan
Matty Ice has a questionable playoff resume (0-3 with a 71.2 Passer Rating) but as much of a big deal as the media likes to make it, this is a sample size of three games we are talking about. Ryan is a very good quarterback and he’s even better at home. The Falcons have elite playmakers but for any passing offense to work you need the right facilitator and Ryan is that guy for Atlanta. He was an early MVP candidate and although his pace slowed as the season wore on he set career highs in yards (4719), TD’s (32), and Passer Rating (99.1). One of the things that makes Ryan successful is his ability to go deep and that’s where Earl Thomas comes in. The smallest and fastest member of the Legion of Boom is the man who really makes the Seahawks pass coverage work downfield. Thomas’s unbelievable range can help compensate for any mistakes his fellows make and he’s dangerous if he can get the ball in his hands as he demonstrated in week 15 against Buffalo. Roddy White and Julio Jones have the straight line speed to get behind Seattle’s corners and that’s where Thomas steps in. Thomas’s All-Pro nod was well deserved this year and we’ll have to see if he can continue to earn it by helping to shut down Matt Ryan’s aerial assault.
This is a winnable game for Seattle, but only because the Seahawks have proven they are capable of virtually anything over the last six weeks. The Falcons aren’t the pushovers/choke artists they are being painted as and I would warn against assuming the “hot team”, in this case the Seahawks, rolls over the team who took a week off. It’s a convenient narrative but it’s not true at least as often as it is. This will be a good game, a tough game, and an entertaining game. Beyond that one can only hope the Seahawks play their best football and have the favor of the football gods.