Atlanta enjoyed a bye week from the first round of the playoffs, but didn’t rest, practicing four times during the break. Seattle got down by 14 points early against the Washington Redskins in the Wild Card Round, but came back to win 24-14.
Seattle is one of the hottest teams in the NFL, winning its last six games. However, the Falcons won a league-best 13 games this season and have a number of reasons why they’ll send the Seahawks back home with their first loss since November.
Opposing defensive coordinators have had one major problem with stopping the Falcons all season: It’s next to impossible to adequately cover Atlanta’s “Big Three” threat of route-runners Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.
Between the three targets, they caught 264 passes from quarterback Matt Ryan this season and White and Jones both topped the 1,000-yard plateau, with Gonzalez just 70 yards shy.
Each and every week, teams would attempt to take one or two targets away from Ryan, but the remaining receiver would wreak havoc. Only four times this season were all three held under 100 yards receiving in a game and Atlanta won three of those games anyway.
Forget that the Atlanta Falcons ranked No. 24 on defense this season, giving up 5,849 yards. Forget that they have the 23rd-ranked pass defense and the 21st-ranked run defense.
As bad as that sounds, those aren’t important stats compared to the fact that Atlanta only gave up 299 points this season, making the Falcons the fifth-best defense in that department, allowing just 18.7 points per game.
A big reason behind the fact that opposing offenses churn yardage but don’t score on Atlanta is the bend-don’t-break philosophy and the strength of the Falcons' red-zone defense.
Atlanta ranked fourth in the league by allowing teams who entered the red zone just a 45.24 percent touchdown percentage. When teams entered the red zone, more times than not, they left with just a field goal or no points at all.
In 17 games this season, the Seattle Seahawks are 8-0 at home and 4-5 on the road. Yes, the Seahawks have won their last three on the road, including Sunday’s playoff win in Washington, but their troubles while traveling can’t be overlooked.
At CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks scored 30.375 points per game. On the road, the offense slowed down quite a bit, scoring just 21.4 points per game.
Quarterback Russell Wilson also suffered on the road. Eight of Wilson’s 10 interceptions on the season came during away games and his quarterback rating is a whopping 40.5 points lower when he’s not in friendly confines.
To make matters worse, Seattle is 1-3 this season playing in indoor stadiums and 1-3 on the East Coast when playing at 1 p.m.
There’s no sense in trying to be shy about the Atlanta Falcons’ playoff failures under head coach Mike Smith. Since his arrival, the team is 0-3 in the playoffs and hasn’t showed up for a game yet, losing by a combined score of 102-47.
Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder were the offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, from 2008 through 2011 and have since left the Falcons.
Prior to the 2012 season, general manager Thomas Dimitroff hired Dirk Koetter to run the offense and Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator.
Koetter has opened up the Falcons offense and most impressively introduced the team to a screen game that’s worked wonders. Not only has the screen pass allowed Atlanta to get a little more vertical in its route running, but it has complemented the run game in underneath situations.
Nolan’s new defense has been called “aggressive” and “fun” by the players who are now flourishing in the system.
Ask free safety Thomas DeCoud and defensive end Kroy Biermann how their careers have been re-energized by Nolan’s presence and you’ll get glowing reviews. Ask opposing quarterbacks about the chess match Nolan can play and you’ll get frustration.
I said this at the beginning of the season and still believe this right now: Most of the player personnel is the same now as it was last year. The reason why Atlanta will win its first playoff game under Smith is the additions of Koetter and Nolan.
When top-notch opposing quarterbacks have faced the Atlanta Falcons this season, they’ve gone away confused and with a loss on most occasions.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan tends to dial up inventive schemes when facing the best of the best passers in the NFL. He also allows free safety Thomas DeCoud to get aggressive to try and confuse these passers.
Russell Wilson should expect Nolan to pull out a few new tricks for the rookie.
During his five-year career, quarterback Matt Ryan is 33-6 at home in the Georgia Dome, which includes both regular-season and playoff games.
Yes, Ryan’s last playoff game didn’t end well (Green Bay beat Atlanta 48-21 in 2010), but his home track record is exquisite.
Not only is Ryan great at home, but late in games, he definitely earns his nickname, “Matty Ice.”
Ryan has led the Falcons on 21 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or later since his rookie season in 2008, including five this season (three at home). No quarterback in the league has more since 2008 and never in the history of the NFL has any passer been as clutch as Ryan has been during the first five years of a career.
You might be able to argue whether or not Tony Gonzalez is the best tight end to ever play the game of football, but there’s no arguing the fact that the Falcons want to win a playoff game for Gonzalez.
In his illustrious 16-year career, Gonzalez has been to the playoffs five times. His postseason record is 0-5. He’s already said the 2012 season is likely his last, so in his final opportunity to get a win, the Falcons want to step up.
“I hope they do, I hope they want to win it for me,” said Gonzalez during the Falcons’ bye week. “Because I want to do it for them.”
At that moment, wide receiver Roddy White leaned into Gonzalez’s locker and said “Yeah, we want to win one for Tony.”
“That’s the kind of attitude I like,” said Gonzalez. “And it’s the attitude I have for them.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
One of the benefits of having a bye week in the playoffs is you can get much-needed rest for players with injuries, both nagging and major. During Atlanta’s four-practice bye week, a few injured Falcons made it back to the field.
Strong safety William Moore, who has missed the last four games, returned to practice Saturday, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Moore is a hard-hitting cog to the defensive backfield and will benefit Atlanta’s run defense greatly.
The AJC also reported that wide receiver Roddy White proclaimed himself 100 percent healthy on Friday. White had been slowed by a knee injury, even though he hasn’t missed a game in his Falcons career.
Also on Friday, cornerback Dunta Robinson was cleared from league-mandated concussion protocol and returned to practice
Head coach Mike Smith also announced during his Monday press conference that defensive end John Abraham, who sustained an ankle injury in Atlanta’s Week 17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will return to practice Wednesday.
The Falcons could be back to near-full strength by Sunday when they host the Seattle Seahawks.
The same can’t be said for the Seahawks, who may have lost their best pass-rusher in the Wild Card Round. Defensive end Chris Clemons injured his left knee in the game and will undergo an MRI Monday. The results aren’t known, according to an ESPN report, but many fear Clemons tore his ACL.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.