A lot has changed since last At­lanta-Seat­tle game

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - NFL - By Paul Newberry

AT­LANTA — As with any re­match, there are cer­tainly things that each team learned about the 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 in Seat­tle.

“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 its best cor­ner­back, Des­mond Tr­u­fant.

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

“Both teams now are a bet­ter ver­sion of them­selves than when we played back then,” said Fal­cons head 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 Thomas. In the first meet­ing, he 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.”

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 in 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.”

Elaine Thomp­son / As­so­ci­ated Press 2016

Fal­cons quar­ter­back Matt Ryan has had a lot to cel­e­brate this sea­son, the best of his ca­reer.

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