The NFC's No. 1 seed may be limping into the postseason after a two-week break and a loss to divisional foes in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But nevertheless, the Atlanta Falcons will undoubtedly be brimming with confidence and desire to silence their detractors and take their brand of football deep into the postseason.
After a season when a second 13-3 record in three years still wasn't enough to stop Atlanta's critics from lambasting quarterback Matt Ryan and his ignominious playoff record, the Falcons will play host to the in-form Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoon—and with it, attempting to dispel any other criticisms that may come their way.
While Atlanta's offense has been going about its business making considerable noise, but not exactly blowing anyone's mind, one Falcon that will have to be at his formidable best is wideout Julio Jones. In this game, if Jones doesn't turn up, or gets shut down by Seattle's imposing defensive backs, his team will have a truly daunting task to beat the 'Hawks and progress to the NFC's championship game—a game the Falcons haven't featured in since 2005 and haven't won since 1999.
Firstly, Atlanta's run game has been the team's biggest stumbling block in 2012, with Michael Turner recording a paltry 800 yards rushing, his lowest total since joining the Falcons from San Diego following the 2007 season. With Turner much less likely to be relied on, this passes the workload onto fellow receiver Roddy White, as well as veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez.
While both White and Gonzalez have been excellent and consistent for the men in red and black this term, Jones has the highest yards per carry over the regular season (with 15.2, compared to White's 14.7 and Gonzalez' 10), despite receiving less touches than both of them and recording a smaller receiving yardage than White.
Who do you think will be Atlanta's most important player at the Georgia Dome on Sunday?
This is where Jones' athleticism and huge-play capabilities come under the microscope. Finding highlight reels of Jones' spectacular catches and on-field production on YouTube is a doddle, but Jones is much more than just a human highlight reel.
His 10 touchdown receptions on the season are a testament to that—while No. 11 can make and has made some stellar grabs for large gains, he has no trouble making the shorter grabs and is adept at doing so like White and Gonzalez.
The very presence of White and Gonzalez and their proficiency at making the important shorter gains will ensure Jones gets more looks downfield as the Falcons will look to stretch the impressive Seahawks secondary.
While Brandon Browner was torched in Jones' first career match-up with Seattle (analysed here in great detail by Bleacher Report's Knox Bardeen) last season, the ubiquity of cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, should ensure that White and Gonzalez are scrupulously defended.
That's where Jones, with all of his deep-threat effectiveness and wideout craft and guile, will be key. With the Seahawks over-extended, Jones has the cunning to get himself open one-on-one versus Browner and open up opportunities for he and Matty Ice to connect again and again.
You can also look at Seattle's form—both at CenturyLink Field and on the road—and notice that despite their woes on their travels earlier on in the season, the Seahawks have tightened the screw away from the Pacific Northwest in recent times. Evidenced clearly by the decisive victory at FedEx Field days ago, when the Washington Redskins' Super Bowl hopes were put paid to, Seattle is hot on both sides of the ball.
You can bet that Seattle will do their very best to undo Ryan's signal-calling and overwhelm Atlanta's defense, with Russell Wilson at the helm trying to turn it into a shootout. But what Wilson lacks—and what Ryan does not—is a dangerous deep threat named Julio Jones.
No. 11 will need to be lights out if the Falcons want to remain No. 1 in the NFC.