Change in the air for Fal­cons, Sea­hawks

Both teams showed plenty of growth de­spite key in­juries

Houston Chronicle - - PRO FOOTBALL - By Paul Newberry

AT­LANTA — 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 mind­ful 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 sea­son-end­ing in­jury to top cor­ner­back Des­mond Tr­u­fant.

Vic Beasley, in par­tic­u­lar, es­tab­lished him­self as one of the league’s most dom­i­nant pass rush­ers.

“Both teams now are a bet­ter ver­sion of them­selves than 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 in­ter­cep­tions Ryan threw all sea­son.

“His ac­cu­racy is phe­nom­e­nal,” Seat­tle coach Pete Car­roll said. “He puts it in all of the right spots.” Sea­hawks (11-5-1) at Fal­cons (11-5) When/where: 3:35 p.m. to­day.; At­lanta. TV: Fox. Seat­tle up­date: Thomas Rawls, who missed the reg­u­larsea­son win over the Fal­cons with leg in­jury, ran for a team post­sea­son-record 161 yards with a TD against Detroit last week. With­out Rawls, the Sea­hawks had only 72 yards rush­ing against At­lanta. … Rus­sell Wil­son’s 64 wins, in­clud­ing post­sea­son, are the most for a start­ing QB in his first five sea­sons in NFL his­tory. Wil­son’s 8-3 in 11 play­off starts. He has thrown for 18 TDs with nine in­ter­cep­tions in those games. … WR Doug Bald­win has a team-record 50 post­sea­son catches, in­clud­ing 11 for 104 yards with a TD last week. … TE Jimmy Gra­ham has eight TD catches in his last 10 games against At­lanta. … DE Cliff Avril had two sacks last week. At­lanta up­date: QB Matt Ryan’s 117.1 passer rat­ing led the NFL and was fifth-best in league his­tory. Ryan set a Fal­cons record with 4,944 yards pass­ing to rank se­cond in league. … Ryan is 1-4 in play­offs. … WR Julio Jones was se­cond in the NFL with 1,409 yards re­ceiv­ing de­spite miss­ing two games. … DE Dwight Freeney’s 10 ca­reer play­off sacks are tied for third among ac­tive play­ers. … LB Vic Beasley Jr. led the NFL with 15½ sacks. … LB Deion Jones (106) and S Keanu Neal (105) led NFL rook­ies in tack­les. … RB Devonta Free­man ran for 1,079 yards.

David Gold­man / As­so­ci­ated Press

Quar­ter­back Matt Ryan will try to bur­nish his MVP-like sea­son by lead­ing the Fal­cons past the Sea­hawks and into the NFC ti­tle game.

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