NFC Divisional Playoff 2017: How Seahawks Can Upset the Falcons

The Seattle Seahawks have the means for an upset win over the Atlanta Falcons in this week’s NFC Divisional showdown, but must do several key things.

Unlike the first Wild Card Weekend game (Oakland Raiders vs. Houston Texans), this week’s opening act should be a good one. The Seattle Seahawks, coming off a 26-6 victory over the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card Round, travel across the country to take on the high-flying Atlanta Falcons.

These two teams met in Week 6, with the Seahawks protecting their home field in a 26-24 comeback victory. Matt Ryan and the Falcons put up 21 points in the third quarter, but Russell Wilson led the Seahawks to a fourth-quarter comeback, capped-off with a 44-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka.

This time around, the Falcons will be playing at home, and the Seahawks will be without Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas. The last time the Atlanta Falcons won a playoff game was in 2012, coincidently against the Seahawks in the Divisional Round. For the Seahawks to turn the result in their favor this time around, they need the execute in five areas of the game.

Pass Protection and Pass Rush

The Seahawks offensive line was much maligned in the regular season, but last week, they played pretty well. This Falcons defense ranked 27th in the league in terms of sacking quarterbacks per dropback (just 4.9 percent of all opposing team dropbacks results in a sack), so pressuring the quarterback isn’t their strong suit. However, they do have NFL sack leader Vic Beasley (15.5 sacks) and wily veteran Dwight Freeney (3.0 sacks), so Seattle needs to keep them in check and give Russell Wilson time to take advantage of a poor secondary.

Atlanta, meanwhile, boasts an impressive offensive line, but they too will be tested against the second-ranked Seattle pass rush (7.3 percent of opposing team dropbacks results in a sack). Matt Ryan shredded the Seahawks in Week 6 for 335 yards and three touchdowns. So, if he doesn’t face a lot of pressure, Ryan could have a big day.

Running Backs out of the Backfield

The one aspect of the Falcons offense that really set them apart from the league this year was the use of their running backs as receivers. Through a variety of screens, wheel routes, or simple check downs, running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 85 receptions, 883 yards, and five touchdowns. However, the Seahawks defense has given up just 65 catches (fourth-fewest) and zero touchdowns to opposing running backs this year. If Seattle can limit the production of Atlanta’s running backs, it would go a long way to help stopping the league’s most prolific offense.

Go-To Wide Receivers

In Week 6, Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones exploded for seven receptions, 139 yards, and a touchdown; Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin was held to just four receptions and 31 yards. However, a big reason why Baldwin was held in check was Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant, who has since then been placed on injured reserve.

Jones will surely be either double-teamed or shadowed by Pro Bowler Richard Sherman, but Baldwin operates out of the slot so often that double-teaming him is nearly impossible. For Seattle to win on Saturday, they’re going to need for Baldwin to outshine Jones.

Special Teams

Falcons kicker Matt Bryant has had one of the better seasons in his long career, while Seahawks kicker Steven Hauschka has missed seven extra points, including one last week. In a potential shootout, every point matters. And on paper, the Falcons have a big advantage in the kicking game. Hauschka must be on his A-game.

Familiarity

Dan Quinn was Pete Carroll’s defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks before being hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Does he have a better understanding of how to attack the Seahawks than other coaches in the league do? Or does Carroll know how to attack a Quinn-led defense? The chess-match between these two coaches should be fun to watch, yet for Seattle to win, the teacher must outsmart the pupil.

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