The Seattle Seahawks are riding a five-game winning streak and the argument can certainly be made that they are this season's New York Giants—getting hot at the right time heading into the postseason.
None of that matters on Sunday, when Seattle will travel to Atlanta for a showdown with the Falcons, the No. 1 seed in the NFC that's had two weeks to prepare for the winner of the Seahawks-Washington Redskins game last weekend.
The Falcons are a three-point favorite (according to Bovada) and will have home-field advantage. That hasn't mattered to the Seahawks in their past three road games, as they've managed to turn around a horrible 1-4 road start to win three straight games, hitting the playoffs with a bang.
Against the Redskins, the Seattle defense was a big key—as was a physically hampered Robert Griffin III. Atlanta, by comparison, has a full complement of healthy and hungry players, none more so than All-Pro TE Tony Gonzalez, still looking for his first playoff victory, as reported by ESPN's Trey Wingo:
Falcons/Seahawks: No player has played in more games in NFL history than Tony Gonzalez(254) without winning a single playoff game. 0-5
—trey wingo (@wingoz) January 11, 2013
The NFL version of Karl Malone will be a big concern for Seattle, and there are other areas that could pose problems for Seahawks on Sunday. Here's a look at three big keys to help Seattle pull off the upset and move on to the NFC Championship Game next weekend.
Start the Run/Stop the Run
Whoever runs the ball well in this game will likely get to keep playing.
The Falcons ranked 21st in stopping the run in the regular season, giving up over 120 yards per game. And they given up yardage to running backs you wouldn't expect. With Marshawn Lynch a little banged up, it's still going to be important to establish the run early. Everything Pete Carroll does in the play-action pass game is predicated on getting the defense to bite early on.
Similarly, the Falcons have managed to win 13 games without having a big-time running threat. The once highly regarded RB Michael Turner rushed for over 100 yards in a game just twice in 2012, and Jacquizz Rodgers isn't exactly an every-down back.
Still, the Falcons have a potent offense and manage to do enough with the run each game to stay in it. Whoever controls the run and the clock will have an inside track to victory.
Win the Matchup vs. Tony Gonzalez in the Red Zone
Whether it's Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas or one of the linebackers, someone is going to draw Gonzalez in the red zone. It's simply part of the deal—it's extremely hard to run zone against good TEs, and you have a better shot to try and match up with help either underneath or over the top.
Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright could also see time against Gonzalez, the greatest pass-catching tight end in NFL history (at least according to the numbers).
When the Falcons get past the 20-yard line, they love to go to Gonzalez down the middle of the field in all situations. Play-action, shotgun or split out like a receiver, No. 88 is going to be No 2's primary target.
This is a matchup the Seahawks must win. Seattle allowed just 845 yards and three touchdowns to TEs in 2012—both on the low side of the league average—so at least the defense has proven it can succeed against this particular position.
Get Out to a Fast Start
Since the Falcons are 0-3 in their last three playoff appearances, the team's psyche is at an all-time fragile. Many of the Falcon players have been on the team for all three losses, and the amount of desperation to get that first win in the Matt Ryan era is as high as can be.
In other words, panic could set in for the Falcons were Seattle to grab an early lead.
The thoughts of, "Not again" and "Can we ever win a playoff game?" might start to creep in if happens. Should Seattle grab a lead of 10 or more points, how much mental fortitude will the Falcons have?
The answer could be a ton, but I don't think head coach Mike Smith wants to leave it up to chance. Seattle can make this game ugly for Atlanta by executing and jumping on top early.
Seattle has the tools to pull off this upset, but it certainly is no walk in the park. Sure, Atlanta didn't look pretty in all 16 regular season games this season, but its 13-3 record speaks for itself.
If there's one thing the Seahawks have that they didn't last time they hit the postseason, it's a QB—and one that finds himself in elite company, as reported by ESPN's Stats and Information:
Russell Wilson has 12 wins this season (including postseason). Only QB with more in rookie season in Super Bowl era- Roethlisberger + Flacco
—ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 11, 2013
We'll leave you with that to chew on, as these two great representatives of the NFC fight to move one step closer to Super Bowl glory.
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for B/R's Breaking News Team.