The Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks are in first place in their respective divisions, but that’s about where the similarities end.
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Led by a potent and efficient offense, the Falcons are inching closer to securing home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, while the Seahawks, who have an inconsistent and turnover-prone offense, are sputtering in the mediocre NFC West.
Atlanta looks to win its eighth straight and clinch a playoff berth Sunday when it visits a Seattle team trying to avoid losing for the sixth time in eight games.
The Falcons (11-2), wrapping up a stretch of four road games in five weeks, own the NFC’s best record and have a one-game lead over New Orleans in the South. Atlanta, which hosts the Saints and Carolina in the final two weeks, can clinch home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs by winning two of its last three.
The Falcons can also clinch a playoff berth with a win over Seattle, or a loss by either Chicago, Green Bay or the New York Giants.
"With three NFC games left, it’s important. All the games are big now," defensive end John Abraham said after last Sunday’s 31-10 win at Carolina. "All the games can put us in a good situation. We want to have that home-field advantage and for us we have to keep winning."
Seattle (6-7) could have home-field advantage for a wild-card game despite the possibility of finishing with a losing record.
The Seahawks, tied with St. Louis atop the West, could have put themselves in a favorable position by beating San Francisco last Sunday, but a 40-21 loss has left them in a tough spot. Seattle now needs either a win over Atlanta or Tampa Bay next week and a victory over the Rams at home in the regular-season finale to likely secure its first division title since 2007.
That’s no easy task, considering the Seahawks have only two victories in their last seven games.
"It continues to be the challenge that we’re trying to find our game, find it each week and see if we can do it," coach Pete Carroll said.
The Falcons are having no such problems.
Led by quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner, Atlanta is fifth in the league with 25.8 points per game.
Ryan is averaging 247.4 passing yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions during the seven-game winning streak, while Turner has rushed for 708 yards with 10 TDs. Turner ran for three scores last Sunday while recording his third 100-yard game in four weeks.
Ryan could be the one having a big game this weekend, as Seattle’s pass defense ranks 30th in the NFL at 266.0 yards allowed per game. The Seahawks let San Francisco’s Alex Smith, who was making his first start since Oct. 24, throw for 255 yards with three touchdowns last week.
"We feel like we’re a good football team, that’s for sure," Ryan said. "We are a confident team."
Carroll doesn’t feel the same way about his squad.
While his defense struggled to slow down Smith and the 49ers, Matt Hasselbeck threw four interceptions and fumbled once.
Hasselbeck has eight interceptions in his last three games for the Seahawks, who have 16 turnovers in their last six. The Falcons have turned the ball over three times in their past six contests.
"I don’t feel the consistency of growth, particularly here at the end of the season when everyone is working hard," Carroll said. "Everyone is the recipient of playing together so long you should be playing better and better and better as you go along and it doesn’t feel like that."
Seattle’s turnover woes could pose as a major problem against an opportunistic Atlanta defense.
The Falcons are tied for sixth in the league with 17 interceptions and have scored 84 points off 24 turnovers.
Hasselbeck, one victory shy from his 70th which would tie him with Dave Krieg as Seattle’s winningest quarterback, is hopeful he’ll have a healthier receiving corps.
Mike Williams (ankle sprain) and Ben Obomanu (hand laceration) could play after sitting out last week. The Seahawks are already going to be without Deon Butler after he broke his leg while making a touchdown catch against the 49ers and was placed on injured reserve.
This will be the first meeting between these teams since Atlanta’s 44-41 win Dec. 30, 2007. The Falcons had lost the previous four meetings and haven’t won in Seattle since 1997.