Twists in Sea­hawks-Fal­cons re­match

Both teams sport dif­fer­ent looks since Seat­tle’s win in reg­u­lar sea­son

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Paul New­berry

As with any re­match, there are cer­tainly things that both teams learned about each other the first time around.

Then again, so much will be dif­fer­ent when the At­lanta Fal­cons host Seat­tle in an NFC di­vi­sional play­off game Satur­day. Es­pe­cially for the Sea­hawks. Seat­tle found a run­ning game in its play­off opener, and quar­ter­back Rus­sell Wil­son ap­pears as healthy as he’s been all sea­son.

Yet the de­fense looks a lot less im­pos­ing without safety Earl Thomas, out for the sea­son with a bro­ken leg.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, this game will be at the Ge­or­gia Dome, cost­ing the Sea­hawks per­haps the most im­pos­ing home-field ad­van­tage in the NFL. A 26-24 vic­tory over the Fal­cons in Week 6 was at the Link.

“We’ve got the best fans in the world,” said Wil­son, no doubt mind- ful that Seat­tle is 8-1 at home this sea­son but just 3- 4-1 on the road. “We don’t take that for granted.”

In ad­di­tion to hav­ing the fans on their side for the re­match, the Fal­cons look a bit dif­fer­ent on the field.

The young de­fense, with as many as four rookie starters, has grown up con­sid­er­ably over the lat­ter part of the sea­son, even after a sea­so­nend­ing in­jury to its best cor­ner­back, Des­mond Tr­u­fant.

Vic Beasley, in par­tic­u­lar, es­tab-

lished him­self as one of the league’s most dom­i­nant pass rush­ers.

“Both teams now are a bet­ter ver­sion of them­selves t han when we played back then,” said Fal­cons coach Dan Quinn, a for­mer de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in Seat­tle.

The At­lanta of­fense has been on point all sea­son. Led by quar­ter­back Matt Ryan, one of the lead­ing con­tenders for MVP, the Fal­cons (11- 5) romped to the NFC South ti­tle and a first-round bye be­hind the league’s high­est-scor­ing of­fense, av­er­ag­ing nearly 34 points a game.

Ryan has been es­pe­cially ac­cu­rate on his deep throws, an area of vul­ner­a­bil­ity for the Sea­hawks without their star safety. In the first meet­ing, Thomas had one of just seven in-

ter­cep­tions Ryan threw all sea­son.

“His ac­cu­racy is phe­nom­e­nal,” Seat­tle coach Pete Car­roll said. “He puts it in all of the right spots.”

Here are some things to watch for Satur­day:


While Ryan is com­ing off the best sea­son of his ca­reer, com­plet­ing 69.9 per­cent for 4,944 yards and 38 touch­downs, his ca­reer mark in the play­offs is just 1- 4.

In an in­ter­est­ing twist, that lone post­sea­son win came against Seat­tle dur­ing the di­vi­sional round four years ago, when he guided the Fal­cons to a last-sec­ond, 30-28 vic­tory after the Fal­cons blew a 20-point lead. Ryan said the past won’t be a fac­tor in this game. “I feel like I’m play­ing my best,” he said, “bet­ter than I ever have.”


Seat­tle’s in­con­sis­tent run game got a big — and sur­pris­ing — boost out of Thomas Rawls in last week’s wild- card vic­tory over Detroit. Rawls rushed for 161 yards, a fran­chise play­off record that caught every­one off guard after the run­ning backs pro­duced just two 100-yard games dur­ing the en­tire reg­u­lar sea­son and the Sea­hawks didn’t even rush for 100 yards as a team in the fi­nal three games. That 100-yard mark is a big num­ber. Un­der Car­roll, the Sea­hawks have just one play­off vic­tory when fail­ing to reach triple fig­ures on the ground.


Julio Jones had seven catches for 139 yards against Seat­tle dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son, and At­lanta fans are still seeth-

ing about an ap­par­ent pass in­ter­fer­ence penalty on Richard Sher­man that wasn’t called late in the game. While the Jones-vs.Sher­man matchup is sure to be a fo­cal point, the Fal­cons have shown they can win even when op­po­nents dou­ble up on their All-Pro re­ceiver. Ryan has thrown TDs to an NFL-record 13 play­ers, and the pass­ing game is at full strength with the re­turn of speedy re­ceiver Tay­lor Gabriel and tight end Austin Hooper from in­juries that kept them out late in the sea­son.


It would be a good time to get tight end Jimmy Gra­ham reac­quainted with the Seat­tle of­fense. In Week 6, he had six catches for 89 yards and took ad­van­tage of open­ings in the mid­dle of At­lanta’s de­fense. But over the past five games in­clud­ing the play­offs, Gra­ham has just 11

re­cep­tions and one touch­down. He’s al­ways played well against the Fal­cons go­ing back to his days in New Or­leans, to­tal­ing 55 re­cep­tions, eight touch­downs and five games of at least 80 yards re­ceiv­ing over 11 matchups.


Devin Hester re­turns to the Ge­or­gia Dome for the first time since be­ing re­leased by the Fal­cons. Signed be­fore the play­offs to jump­start Seat­tle’s re­turn game, he had the last of his NFL-record 20 touch­down re­turns dur­ing a Pro Bowl sea­son with the Fal­cons in 2014. He was re­leased last sum­mer after bat­tling in­juries, but At­lanta is mind­ful of his po­ten­tial im­pact on spe­cial teams. “He’s had ter­rific his­tory of mak­ing big plays, so we cer­tainly know what Devin is ca­pa­ble of,” Quinn said.


Fal­cons quar­ter­back Matt Ryan, in ac­tion against the Ea­gles in Philadel­phia in Novem­ber, en­ters the play­offs hav­ing had the best reg­u­lar sea­son of his ca­reer.

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