ATLANTA — In the only previous playoff meeting between Atlanta and Seattle, Matt Ryan threw one more touchdown pass than Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and the Falcons overcame squandering a big lead to win on a late field goal by Matt Bryant.
That divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome during the 2012 season, though, probably has little meaning for Saturday’s follow-up in Atlanta.
That playoff game is the only victory in five tries for Ryan. Wilson, who was a rookie the first time, has an 8-3 postseason mark and a Super Bowl ring to his credit.
What could be of significance is the Seahawks’ controversial 28-26 victory at home in mid-October when cornerback Richard Sherman wasn’t whistled for a late pass interference call on Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones.
“We felt like we had a chance to win that game. Calls didn’t go our way,” said Falcons second-year outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr., who led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks. “Things could’ve went a different route, so we’re looking forward to this opportunity.”
Not having to go back to Seattle is certainly an advantage for the Falcons. They also went 4-0 down the stretch in winning the NFC South and received a first-round bye when the NFC West-champion Seahawks lost three of their final six games.
The Seattle defense, which ranked third in the NFL in points allowed at 18.3 per game, suffered a major blow with the loss safety Earl Thomas. The Falcons, with Ryan having his best season, led the NFL with an average of 33.8 points per game.
“All teams are a little different now and I’d say we’re a better version of ourselves then when we played them,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
While the Seahawks’ defense misses Thomas, it did return to form in a 28-6 opening victory over the Detroit Lions last Saturday.
Wilson, who had his career high with 385 passing yards in that playoff loss to the Falcons, appears to be the healthiest he’s been this season.
Just as important, the offense found its missing ground game with Thomas Rawls rushing 27 times for 161 yards – a team playoff record.
Rawls, the replacement for the retired Marshawn Lynch, was out with a fracture in his leg when the Seahawks played the Falcons during the regular season.
“We just haven’t been able to get him enough opportunities,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He just had a hard time getting rolling.”
The Falcons’ young defense, which has been much better against the run than the pass this season, now has something else for which to worry.
“It opens up everything for us,” Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin said of the ground game. “When Thomas Rawls is doing that, they can’t help but put another safety in the box, and then that gives us one-on-one match-ups on the outside.”
Rookie safety Keanu Neal feels that he and his teammates are up to the challenge, although they were 27th in points allowed during the season at 25.4. Atlanta also lost top corner back Desmond Trufant after playing the Seahawks the first time.
“Since the bye week (in the middle of the season), the defense has really skyrocketed,” he said.
“All those guys, they don’t play like rookies, they don’t play like young guys,” Wilson said of the Falcons. “… They play fast, they play smart. They know where they’re supposed to be. … You can definitely notice that on film.”
Quinn, in his second season as Falcons coach, was the defensive coordinator during Seattle’s two trips to the Super Bowl. He has downplayed that as a storyline, though, and is thankful he’s already faced the Seahawks once.
“I’m glad that game got out of the way,” Quinn said. “… Let’s hope through the years we battle a bunch of times against them. I sense that will be the case.”
“It’s going to be a really difficult challenge and, of course, playing there is always hard,” Carroll said. “I love the job that Dan has done.”
Jones, who was second in the NFL in yards receiving despite missing two games with a toe injury, should be the healthiest he’s been in a while after the extra rest.
“Everybody could use a week,” said Jones, who had seven catches for 139 yards and a touchdown in the game at Seattle. “It’s a long season. But, yeah, it will be beneficial for me for that week, especially with the toe injury I had.”
The Seahawks, though, may have benefited from playing last week after their sluggish finish to the regular season.
“We’re expecting a fight,” said Bobby Wagner, Seattle’s standout inside linebacker. “They’re going to come in rested. They’re going to be hungry, but we’re hungry, too. We’re going to come out and give them everything we got.”
After missing the playoffs the past three seasons, Ryan gets a chance to show that he can win more than once in the postseason. Quinn said he told his quarterback to focus on that opportunity.
“It’s all about now,” the coach said. “Things that are from a while back ago, you definitely learn from it. You take those lessons and now you apply them and you are better for it.”
Ryan, who has gone 137 passes without an interception, had 19 touchdowns passes to four picks at home during the regular season. Wilson had eight TD passes and eight interceptions on the road.
Ryan needs to change his playoff narrative, though.
“I don’t worry about it too much,” Ryan said. “One thing I’ve learned throughout my career is if you spend time worrying about that you are not spending time worrying about the things that are going to make a difference on (game day).”
Wilson is a Ryan fan, although he obviously hopes to outplay him Saturday.
“I think Matt Ryan’s always been a great quarterback,” Wilson said. “I don’t think it’s just this year. He’s always been a guy to be able to win football games and make plays and do a lot of good things. I don’t think it’s anything new for Matt at all.”