The Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs kicks off on Saturday with a rematch between the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons. This game has all the star power, from Russell Wilson to Matt Ryan, but it won’t just be those two players deciding which team advances to the NFC title game.
These 11 players will have a big hand in the outcome of this game, and not all of them are stars. Football is a game of matchups, and this NFC showdown will likely come down to which team executes better in pivotal one-on-one battles.
Here are the 11 guys that will decide Seahawks-Falcons in Atlanta on Saturday.
Michael Bennett, DE, Seahawks
Michael Bennett probably deserves more credit and attention than he gets because he truly is one of the best defensive ends in the game. He’ll try to prove that again this weekend against the Falcons. Bennett has the ability to wreck opposing game plans by getting to the quarterback and stuffing running backs in the backfield. He’ll play a key role in this one if he can pressure Matt Ryan the way he and Cliff Avril did in Week 6.
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Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons
The Falcons have one of the top running back duos in the NFL in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. They can both run between the tackles with power and speed, while also splitting out wide as receivers. They create mismatches on the edges, which the Seahawks could have some trouble with. For Freeman, though, establishing the ground attack against Seattle’s front will be key for the rest of the game, balancing the offense and keeping the Seahawks on their heels.
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Jimmy Graham, TE, Seahawks
Jimmy Graham has gotten much better in his second season with the Seahawks, but he’s still not the dominant red-zone threat he should be. He’s seen just two throws come his way from inside the 10-yard line, which is two fewer than Paul Richardson. That should not happen. Russell Wilson needs to get the ball to his big target inside the 20, particularly because the Seahawks have only one receiver over 6-foot-1, and he hardly plays.
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Ryan Schraeder, RT, Falcons
Seattle’s defensive line is outstanding and they have little trouble getting to the quarterback. In fact, they got to Matt Ryan four times in Week 6, two of which came from Cliff Avril. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder will be tasked with keeping Avril off of Ryan, which was a difficult task in their last meeting. He has to be better this time around.
Vic Beasley, OL, Falcons
Vic Beasley has emerged as a dominant force for the Falcons this season. He led the league in sacks (15.5) despite having half as many tackles as Von Miller. On a per-rush basis, you could make the case he gets to the quarterback better than just about every other pass rusher. The Seahawks’ offensive line has improved, but not enough to completely eliminate Beasley from the equation. He can cause some discomfort for Russell Wilson in the pocket.
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Kam Chancellor, S, Seahawks
The tone-setter, the enforcer, and the Seahawks’ best (healthy) safety, Kam Chancellor isn’t going to replace Earl Thomas. That’s Steven Terrell job. However, Chancellor can establish a physical presence early on. He needs to stuff Devonta Freeman right out of the gate. Chancellor has to set the tone when Julio Jones goes across the middle. And when the Falcons attempt to get the ball to their dynamic backs in the passing game, Chancellor has to stick with them and eliminate big plays.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
Fair or not, Julio Jones isn’t one of the four most important players in this game because the Falcons moved the ball with ease when he wasn’t on the field. They scored 85 total points when he was injured – albeit, against the Rams and 49ers – but it’s clear the Falcons have enough playmakers to go around offensively. That said, Jones is obviously still an integral part of the game plan and it will be key for him to win his matchup with Richard Sherman like he did in Week 6, when he had seven catches for 139 yards and a touchdown.
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Thomas Rawls, RB, Seahawks
It’s no coincidence that the Seahawks looked great offensively when Thomas Rawls had his biggest game of the year against the Lions. Seattle has been inconsistent offensively this season, but when they’re able to run the ball, they typically win. They’ve rushed for 100-plus yards as a team seven times this season (including last week), and have won five of those games. If Rawls can run rampant against the Falcons, the offense will move the ball and set the tempo.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks
Richard Sherman was kept on one side of the field last week against the Lions, largely due to the fact that they don’t have a true No. 1 receiver. That won’t be the case on Saturday. He’ll likely follow Julio Jones around the field, covering him wherever he goes – except for maybe the slot. Jones is definitely Atlanta’s best playmaker, so if Sherman can limit him to 50 yards or fewer, the Seahawks will be in good shape. It won’t be easy, though.
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
The NFL’s All-Pro quarterback might very well be the league MVP, so why wouldn’t he be one of the most important players in his game? Matt Ryan has had a tremendous season and it’ll have to continue if the Falcons want to move the ball against Seattle’s swarming defense. Ryan has the ability to put up points in a flash thanks to his playmakers, and while the Seahawks don’t give up many big plays, they could be vulnerable without Earl Thomas.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks
Russell Wilson isn’t just the most important player to the Seahawks, he’ll be the most important player on the field Saturday afternoon. Seattle goes as Wilson does, and without him, the Seahawks probably aren’t even a playoff team. He’ll need to have a big game against the Falcons if Seattle wants to have a chance of advancing. Atlanta’s defense isn’t dominant by any means, but Seattle’s offensive line has struggled this season, so he could be evading pressure often.