The Seattle Seahawks proved that a productive run game and solid defense travel well in the playoffs. Their winding road to the Super Bowl resumes Sunday afternoon against the well-rested and top-seeded Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
Seattle gave the Washington Redskins a double dose of ground and pound in last weekend's 24-14 win at FedEx Field, where the Seahawks overcame a 14-0 deficit and picked up right where they left off in the regular season. The Seahawks, in the playoffs for the fifth time since 2005, persevered after a pair of four-yard touchdown passes from gimpy Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III by tightening up their defense and getting Marshawn Lynch going.
Lynch was in his alter-ego 'beast mode' with 132 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Had it not been for Lynch's hard running, the Seahawks could be in early-vacation mode.
Washington's top-rated ground attack was held to 104 yards on the night as rookie running back Alfred Morris carried the ball 16 times for 80 yards. RG3 had just 21 yards and completed 10-of-19 passes for 84 yards and was intercepted once by Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas. Defensive end Bruce Irvin, whose role will now increase with Chris Clemons done for the season with a torn knee ligament, posted one of Seattle's two sacks.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll discussed Irvin's new responsibilities.
"Bruce Irvin will step up and take a bunch of those snaps," Carroll said. "This is Bruce���s opportunity. It's what we drafted him to play. We'll see how he does. We expect him to really play well as he steps up."
Irvin led all NFL rookies with eight sacks during the regular season and, according to Carroll, understands the scheme and closes in on the quarterback. While the Seahawks will miss Clemons and his 11 1/2 sacks from the regular season, they're confident in Irvin's abilities.
Coming off their first playoff road win since 1983, the No. 5 seed Seahawks have lost their last three appearances in the divisional round. They haven't reached the conference championship since going to the Super Bowl in 2005 with Mike Holmgren at the helm. Holmgren had a seasoned veteran at quarterback then with Matt Hasselbeck, and now the Seahawks have rookie Russell Wilson. Wilson has turned heads and could be a darkhorse winner for Offensive Rookie of the Year among other candidates such Griffin and Colts QB Andrew Luck.
Wilson has led the Seahawks to six straight wins and eight in the last nine, including three in a row away from the 12th man. His elusiveness doesn't garner as much attention as his arm, and Wilson owns 16 touchdown passes to two interceptions in the past eight games. He has accumulated a passer rating of 100 or better in seven of those contests, and is excited to get back to work in preparation for the Falcons.
"The great thing is, we get another opportunity to get back this week and continue to practice and continue to focus on the little details and how we can execute," Wilson said. "When you're in the playoffs, the goal is just to win. No matter what the circumstances are. Obviously if we make those plays, that will give us an even better chance. So we're looking forward to this week of practice."
The former Wisconsin star has 27 touchdown passes, most by a rookie in NFL history, including the postseason. He only needed one against the Redskins because Lynch and the defense handled most of the load. Expect Seahawks receivers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate to play a bigger role Sunday.
Atlanta captured the top seed in the NFC and homefield advantage throughout the postseason. The Falcons hope they can ride the home crowd to their second Super Bowl appearance in team lore, but standing in the way of that goal are the upstart Seahawks.
The last time the Falcons advanced to the conference championship was back in 2004, when head coach Jim Mora and quarterback Michael Vick were together. Matt Ryan took over as the face of the franchise in 2008 and has come up empty in each of his three postseason appearances since then.
Ryan enjoyed a spectacular regular season in which he threw for a team-record 4,719 yards with 32 touchdown passes and a 68.6 completion percentage. 'Matty Ice' has 56 regular-season wins as a start -- the most by a QB in his first five seasons -- and will be at the epicenter of Atlanta's success or downfall. Ryan has completed 70-of-110 pass attempts for 584 yards with three touchdowns in three career playoff games. He is the first quarterback in franchise history to lead the team to five straight winning seasons.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith knows his team will have a target on its back as the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But it's business as usual for his players.
"To me, it's no different than any other game. It's 100 percent on our football team to go out and play our best whether it's a preseason game or a regular season game or whether it's a postseason game," Smith said. "We feel like we've accomplished what we need to accomplish to get here. We are looking forward to playing Seattle this weekend."
Atlanta ended the season with five wins in the last seven games and finished 13-3 overall -- the best mark since going 14-2 in 1998 and reaching the Super Bowl. The key to those 13 wins was Ryan and his trio of pass-catching weapons in Roddy White, Julio Jones and veteran Tony Gonzalez. This could be Gonzalez's last hurrah and best chance at finally winning a Super Bowl.
"This is why you play the game and you always think about what you've gone through in the past and the tough, heart-breaking losses that I've had in the playoffs," said Gonzalez, who was named to his 13th Pro Bowl. "I know what it takes and I know going through an entire career of 16 years and to not even have a playoff win, let alone a Super Bowl, that it's tough."
White said the team wants to "win one for Tony," but it's not that easy. Gonzalez knows that all too well after years of failure with the Kansas City Chiefs. But as previously stated, it all depends on how Ryan plays. Ryan, who is 2-0 in his career against Seattle, has the talent around him, especially the dangerous duo of White and Jones. Both wideouts eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark, while White had a team-record sixth straight season with that many yards. White may talk some trash and can back it up on the field as evidenced by his NFC-high 585 receptions since 2007, including the playoffs.
The Falcons, who have captured the top seed in two of the past three seasons, are unbeaten in the previous three meetings with Seattle, averaging 36 ppg in those victories. However, the Seahawks are 8-5 in the all-time series.
Sunday's matchup marks the first playoff meeting between the two teams.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
One glaring advantage the Falcons have in this matchup is their success at the Georgia Dome. Since Smith took over as head coach, the Falcons are 33-7 (.825) as the host and have the best winning percentage at the Dome in the NFC in that time. A big reason for the Peach State prowess is Ryan. Including the playoffs, Ryan is 33-6 at home and has recorded a rating of 100 or better 33 times, going 32-1 in that stretch. The Falcons are 20-0 in 20 home contests which Ryan has registered a 100-plus QB rating.
Ryan and the Falcons will have to solve a Seattle secondary that goes by the moniker 'Legion of Boom.' Safeties Thomas and Kam Chancellor, and cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are the members of the vaunted secondary.
"They're very physical. They're guys that can get up, they don't always do it, but they can get up and create some physical play at the line of scrimmage," Smith said of Seattle's defensive backs. "They can run extremely well. I think Sherman is playing as well as any and Browner is a guy that we played against last year. We're familiar with them."
Ryan could use some help from running back Michael Turner, whose 800 yards rushing this season was the lowest since he had 316 as a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego during the 2007 campaign. The bowling ball-type back had rushed for 100 yards or more just twice this season, but did have 10 or more rushing touchdowns for a fifth consecutive campaign. Turner has a rushing touchdown in six of his last seven games.
Wilson and Lynch will be the focal point for a Seattle offense that will face a Falcons' defense that allowed 123.2 rushing yards per game. Lynch has rushed for more than 100 yards in four straight games and 10 times this season. He leads the league with 2,663 yards since Nov. 2011.
But Seattle's defense faces a bigger test this week than last. RG3 and Morris are formidable opponents, but the Redskins don't have a trio of pass catchers like the Falcons. Washington was shut down completely after grabbing a 14-0 lead, as the Seahawks held Washington to 74 yards after surrendering 129 yards in the first quarter. Bobby Wagner, who had a team-high 139 stops, led the defense with nine tackles for Seattle, which kept the 'Skins out of its territory following the two-score deficit.
"We have great DBs in Seattle and we take pride in taking care of our business," Thomas said.
Thomas and the rest of the "Legion of Doom" better get ready for a track meet Sunday, which is why it's very important to apply pressure up front and rattle Ryan. Unfortunately, there will be no Clemons, but Irvin has to step up.
"We'll certainly miss Clem, but (Irvin) can hold up his own," Carroll said.
Carroll added that Greg Scruggs, K.J. Wright and Mike Morgan could have extended roles in Atlanta. In other team news, Seattle special teams took a hit when kicker Steven Hauschka landed on injured reserve with a strained calf, prompting the Seahawks to sign Ryan Longwell.
Will Seattle's big and physical cornerbacks be able to slow down the dangerous trio of White, Jones and Gonzalez? Not for an entire 60 minutes. That's where Turner comes into play as the wild card.
Turner struggled to hit his stride in the regular season, but managed to score on a consistent basis. Expect Turner to surprise the Seahawks because they're not anticipating the Falcons to matriculate the ball down the field on the ground.
But then again the Falcons could test the Seahawks through the air and dare them to stop what they know is coming. Either way, Atlanta pulls out a close one and sends the Wilson-Lynch show back to the Pacific Northwest.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Seahawks 17