Jan 092013
 

Falcons - SeahawksThe Atlanta Falcons enter the divisional round of the NFC playoffs with a 13-3 record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs, yet find themselves a two and a half point underdog to the upstart fifth seed Seattle Seahawks when the two teams square off this Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome. (*** see update below)

So much for earning the top seed.

Seattle’s status as favorite in this game is deserved, but the game promises to be perhaps the most exciting game of the divisional round. It also marks the only divisional round contest that is not a rematch of a regular season contest. Plus it pairs two teams with very different styles of football. Brace yourselves in for a fun ride this Sunday.

Here’s how I see the game breaking down.

When Seattle runs
Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,590 yards this season and 11 touchdowns, and racked up another 132 yards and a score in last week’s wildcard win over Washington. Lynch’s running prowess and ability to break tackles may force the Falcons to load the box rather than play a Cover 2, making Atlanta susceptible to Seattle’s passing attack. It doesn’t help that Atlanta has given up 4.8 yards per rush this season, and ranks 21st against the run at 123.2 yards per game. Russell Wilson is an effective manager of the Read Option and his athleticism may give the Falcons fits, and Robert Turbin also serves as an efficient back. Atanta’s Stephen Nicholas and Akeem Dent are solid linebackers, but will need to wrap up Lynch rather than try to bring him down with arm tackles or big hits. This match-up favors the Seahawks, and I would expect Lynch to again rush for more than 100 yards, while Wilson and Turbin tack on another 40 or 50. One thing to watch is Lynch’s ball protection. He fumbled five times during the season (losing two) and lost a fumble last weekend in the wildcard game.

When Seattle passes
Seattle does not possess a prolific passing offense (27th in the NFL, 189.4 ypg), so they are simply hoping for a “good enough” effort against the Falcons. Wilson has a 64.1 completion percentage this season, outstanding for a rookie quarterback. But the running game will be the key to the passing game’s success, as it will be far easier for Wilson to connect with targets downfield if the Falcons are forced to bring up safeties in run defense. Once again, Atlanta is vulnerable because they suffer in applying pressure to the quarterback, and managed only 29 sacks on the season. Wilson’s mobility further negates what little pass rush the Falcons will bring. Neither Sidney Rice nor Golden Tate is a true number one receiver, but both are reliable targets. Tate is a speedster who is capable of acrobatic catches and making big plays downfield, while Rice is a durable possession receiver. On the other side, Daunta Robinson and Asante Samuel are capable corners, with Samuel being known as a gambler in coverage. Thomas DeCoud and Chris Hope are among the best safety tandems in the league, but the Falcons still ranked only 23rd in pass defense this season. Sean Witherspoon will need to confuse Wilson and try to force him to make mistakes, and John Abraham and Kroy Biermann will need to get pressure on Wilson to take him out of his comfort zone. Look for Wilson to only pass for around 200 yards, but it may be more than enough to keep the chains moving and keep the Atlanta defense off balance.

When Atlanta runs
Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers are dynamic and complementary backs, and coupled with Jason Snelling the Falcons should be capable of establishing a running game against the Seahawks, particularly off of both tackles. What is troubling for the Falcons however, is that despite the talent they possess at running back, they have not exhibited a dynamic running game this season. The Falcons come in ranked 29th, totaling only 1,397 yards this season. The Falcons possess a solid offensive line, with their only obvious weakness being at the right guard spot where Robert Kunz will need to step up his game this week. For the Falcons to have any real chance of winning this game, they must establish the run and take the pressure off of Matt Ryan, who will be facing a fierce secondary this week.

When Atlanta passes
The Atlanta Falcons would have the edge in this area of the game against nearly any team in the NFL, but the Seattle Seahawks offer the stiffest test that Matt Ryan and his talented receivers are likely to face this season. Ryan has had an outstanding season (4,719 yards, 32 TD, 14 INT, 68.6 completion percentage) and is usually a clutch performer. Roddy White and Julio Jones are as dynamic as any receiver pair in the league. White caught 92 passes for 1,351 yards and seven scores, while Jones caught 79 passes for 1,198 yards and ten touchdowns. Throw in Tony Gonzalez (93 receptions, 930 yards, 8 TD), Harry Douglas (38 receptions, 396 yards, 1 TD), and Rodgers (53 receptions, 402 yards, 1 TD) and it’s easy to see how the Atlanta passing attack could strike fear into the hearts of nearly any opposing defense. Anyone but Seattle’s, that is. Richard Sherman (6’3″, 200#) and Brandon Browner (6’3, 220#) offer a physical match-up to the 6’1″, 210# White and 6’3″, 220# Jones that the Falcons are not used to contending with. Both are excellent corners that can play their receivers in man coverage, freeing up the safety tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas to play Cover 2, Cover 1 robber, or to step up in run defense if the Falcons should have early success running the ball. Cornerback Marcus Trufant is still decent, but is a shadow of his former self, likely to be targeted whenever he is on the field Sunday. Rookie Bruce Irvin, who had eight sacks this season but only 17 total tackles, must step in to replace the injured Chris Clemons and apply pressure to Ryan. Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch and Red Bryant form a solid wall against the run, but struggle in applying consistent pressure to the passer. Seattle only recorded 33 sacks this season (20th in NFL), so they will need to be creative in blitzes to try to rattle Matty Ice. Ryan will need to throw for over 250 yards for the Falcons to have a realistic chance to win, and will need to amass more than 300 yards and make some big plays downfield in the absence of a solid running game this weekend. Look for Gonzalez to get a heavy dose of targets, and for Rodgers to be used as a receiver out of the backfield.

Special teams
The special teams match-up offers a very slight edge to the Falcons. Matt Bryant is a clutch and reliable kicker for the Falcons, and Matt Bosher is a steady punted who excels in changing field position. Rodgers is a decent kick returner, while Dominique Franks and Harry Douglas have struggled to do much with punt returns. The Seahawks were forced to sign Ryan Longwell to replace an injured Steven Hauschka, while John Ryan is an above average punter. Leon Washington is a solid kick and punt returner who has a knack for positive yardage and absorbing hits.

Intangibles
Mike Smith is 2-0 in head to head match-ups with Pete Carroll, but is 0-3 in the post-season. Atlanta is second in the league in 3rd down conversions (45.1%), while Seattle is ranked 12th (40.2%). Seattle went 4-1 against playoff teams this season, beating Green Bay (sort of), New England, Minnesota and San Francisco while losing their first meeting with the 49ers. The Falcons are 2-0 against playoff teams this season, having beaten the Broncos and Redskins.

Atlanta is 7-1 at home this season, while the Seahawks are a mere 4-5 on the road, plus have the burden of traveling across the country for a second straight week to play an East Coast team. 8 of Russell Wilson’s 10 interceptions this season came on the road.

Atlanta and Seattle are tied at +13 in turnover differential this season, with both teams taking the ball away 31 times against 18 of their own turnovers.

Seattle wins if…  Marshawn Lynch runs for over 100 yards and protects the ball, if Russell Wilson can make some plays with passes downfield and with his legs while avoiding mistakes, they hold the Falcons under 100 yards rushing while stopping big plays to White and Jones.

Atlanta wins if… they tackle Marshawn Lynch on first contact and confuse the rookie Wilson, if they can force two or more Seattle turnovers, they establish a strong ground game and rush for more than 125 yards, and connect on several big plays to White, Jones, and Gonzalez.

Prediction
This game has the potential to go either way, and I would be genuinely surprised if this game turned into a rout one way or the other. Atlanta’s offense will be reliant on Matt Ryan makings some big plays downfield, something he has shown a knack for doing. But the Seattle secondary is going to make that a tall order. The Falcons have not shown that they consistently run the ball, something that could come back to haunt them this week. On the flip side, Seattle’s rushing attack poses problems for the Falcon’s front seven, while the passing attack is capable enough to make key plays. As long as Russell Wilson doesn’t choose this week to start making rookie mistakes, this match-up also seems to favor the Seahawks.

Look for the travel and the home crowd to give the Falcons the early edge and probably en early lead. But just as we saw last weekend against the Redskins, expect the Seahawks to slowly assert control over the game. Provided Marshawn Lynch can hold on to the ball and Russell Wilson can avoid making key mistakes, the Seahawks will pound the ball in the second half and advance to the NFC Championship.

Seahawks 27 Falcons 20

*** UPDATE: I swear I read a site where the Hawks were listed as the favorite. Of course it could be the medication talking, as I have not been able to find that site again and have continually seen the Falcons listed as a one to two and a half point favorite. So I thought I read this, but it’s equally possible that I can’t tell a “+” sign from a “-” sign. Correction noted. In any event, the basic premise is that by record the Falcons should be favored, but the Seahawks feel like the favorite. If in fact the Falcons are favored by a mere two and a half points with home field advantage, and that home field normally counts for two to three points, the Seahawks would appear to be the team to beat in this game.

Oct 092012
 

It will be a battle of the irresistible force versus the immovable object when the New England Patriots square off against the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday in Seattle.  The Patriots boast the top offense in the league in both yards per game and points, while the Seahawks offer up the league’s best defense in yards per game and second in points allowed per game.

The game will also feature the Patriots future Hall of Fame Head Coach Bill Belichick against the Patriots’ once upon a time coach of three seasons in the years that bridged the departure of Bill Parcells and the return of Belichick. Pete Carroll’s “rah rah” approach to coaching was a relative failure in New England, but Carroll seems to have honed his approach in the intervening years at USC and is inspiring a confident group of players in the 2012 Seahawks.

The Patriots rely on an opportunistic defense that surrenders yards but also forces turnovers, and the Patriots are tied for the league lead with a +10 turnover differential. The Seahawks use an active and energetic defense that also prides itself in forcing turnovers, but their offense is more charitable in giving the ball up, and the Seahawks are 17th in the league with a -1 turnover differential through the first five games.

On offense the Patriots are the class of the NFL, and this year are executing on the ground (3rd in NFL) as well as through the air (9th). The running back tandem of Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and Danny Woodhead (and occasionally Shane Vereen) have gashed opposing defenses for big yards over the past two weeks, and I would expect the Patriots to adopt a slower paced game this Sunday in order to try to take the air out of an aggressive Seattle defense, as well as to take the air out of the 12th Man, the rowdy Seattle crowd that offers the Seahawks a discernable home field advantage eight times a year. Expect the Patriots to look to run off the right side, taking advantage of Seattle’s weaker defensive players. Chris Clemons, Brandon Mebane, KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner patrol the middle and defensive right side for the Seahawks, and are the bulk of the unit’s production in sacks and forced fumbles. As always, the Patriots will complement the runs with short passes to Gronkowski, Welker, and Hernandez (who is looking ready to play this week), and they have the capability to stretch the field with Brandon Lloyd.

The Patriots will seek to keep the Seattle defensive unit off balance, but will likely do it through play selection, rather than with the hurry-up offense that we have seen over the past two games. Seattle only runs three basic defensive sets; this negates the advantage that the Patriots get from defensive mis-matches, but gives Brady the opportunity to pick apart those packages over the course of four quarters. The two starting corners for the Seahawks are dangerous (Browner and Sherman) but the safeties can be exploited by the Patriots’ offense and their play-action mechanics. Marcus Trufant will be given the tall order of defending against Welker. Kam Chancellor has the frame (6’3″, 232) to try and cover Gronkowski, but Gronk appears to have a decided advantage in both size and athleticism. As long as the Patriots hold on to the ball, they should be able to affect long scoring drives and wear the Seattle defense down. The Patriots are fourth in the league in converting third down opportunities, while the Seahawks rank 19th in giving up third down conversions. I expect the Patriots to look to create third and short opportunities all day to exploit with their cast of running backs.

On the other side, the offense centers around Marshawn Lynch, who has rushed for 508 yards (4.5 ypc) and two touchdowns, and the Seahawks are 7th in the league in rushing. That leaves rookie quarterback Russell Wilson the role of being an effective game manager, a role he has so far excelled in despite his 5 TD/6 INT ratio and overall lackluster 75.2 quarterback rating. The Seahawks will try to pound Lynch early and often on the Patriots, who rank eighth against the run. The Patriots know how to take away the strength of the opponent, and I would expect Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to work hard to contain the edge in order to force Lynch back into the arms of Wilfork, Love, Mayo, and Spikes. Where the Seahawks would normally like to utilize the run to set up opportunities to go downfield to Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Zach Miller, they may need to do just the opposite against the Patriots to free up running room for Lynch. And it is Bill Belichick’s goal to put the game into the hands of Russell Wilson, knowing that he will be able to bring pressure to bear on the rookie quarterback and be able to confuse his reads and force key turnovers.

Three Keys for the Patriots:

1. Control the ball

Even though Russell Wilson does not strike fear into the Patriots’ faithful, it’s still best to keep the opposing quarterback (and more importantly Marshawn Lynch) off of the field whenever possible. The Patriots will seek to duplicate the success they have had in directed 10+ play drives that consume five or six minutes off of the clock; the key is to duplicate this success in one of the more hostile road environments in the NFL. Balance is the new keyword in the Patriots’ offense, and I expect the Patriots to utilize situational runs, mostly to the right, to create short yardage situations as well as to keep the Seahawks honest.

2. Protect Brady

Hey, at least it dropped to #2 this week… But it remains true. The Seahawks can get after the passer. Chris Clemons is a beast, and Mebane and Wright are no slouches. Nate Solder and Logan Mankins will need to be on their game, and might even need running back or tight end help to keep Brady standing in the pocket. The Patriots are generally effective at protecting their franchise player, but suffered a lapse in the second half against the Broncos, with Sebastian Vollmer getting beat soundly on a couple of occasions. The Seahawks made target practice out of Aaron Rodgers a couple of weeks ago, but the Packers made good adjustments in the second half. Look for the Patriots to come up with some creative protection options out of the gate.

3. Make Russell Wilson win the game

The Patriots’ defense will be primarily focused on slowing down or shutting down Marshawn Lynch. Forcing Wilson to pass is inviting him to make mistakes against a defense that will be disguising its coverages in an attempt to create confusion. Devin McCourty is still struggling with technique, but his coverage skills are sufficient, and Kyle Arrington is a physical corner who can make big plays. The introduction of Alfonzo Dennard into the mix last week against the Broncos could be a sign of things to come, as Dennard was very effective in limited play. he could soon become a regular part of the rotation. More importantly, the Patriots have improved dramatically in bringing pressure to bear on the quarterback. While the Saints have generally been stubborn about giving up sacks (10 so far), it’s more about affecting the throw, forcing bad decisions, and providing opportunities for deflections and other big plays. Wilson is an effective scrambler, but doesn’t make his living running the ball downfield.

Three Keys for the Seahawks:

1. Run the ball

This is always Seattle’s key to offensive success, but it will be even more important against a team that has excelled in stopping the run. Lynch must be successful (more than 100 yards) for the Seahawks to have a realistic chance to win the game. Creating holes against a solid front seven is a tough challenge awaiting the Seahawks.

2. Stop Gronk, Hernandez, and Welker

Hernandez may or may not be ready to play on Sunday, but Gronk will be, despite the fact that is playing through heavy pain. Gronk looked healthy enough against the Broncos, but it was Welker who stole the show with 13 receptions. Pass rush really isn’t the answer to this particular riddle, as Brady doesn’t need much time in order to connect on short routes. Instead, the pressure is on the Seahawks’ secondary to step up and press the Patriots’ receiver, trying to alter them from their routes and otherwise give them little room to work in. The Seahawks are 5th against the pass at 192 yards per game, so it is entirely conceivable that they could make the Patriots work for every catch that they get. The trouble is, 192 passing yards is more than enough for Brady if the Patriots are also rushing effectively. Match-ups are key, and you can expect the Patriots to create mismatches all days against a talented but inexperienced group of linebackers. The Seahawks’ defense will have its hands full on Sunday.

3. Create big plays

The Seahawks are at home, where they historically thrive; they are clearly a better home team than road team. If statistics are not to decide this game, it will be because their opportunistic defense forces the Patriots to turn the ball over three or more times, while their offense cannot return the favor. If this happens, the Seahawks will get to control the tempo of the game, force the Patriots to deviate from their game plan, and make a Seahawks upset much more likely. On offense, occasional shots down the field to Rice or Tate may net big yards and/or penalties, as McCourty is having difficulty getting beat deep. One or two of those plays could have a dramatic impact on the outcome.

Prediction:

Because this game is in Seattle, I will expect that the Patriots’ offense may be thrown off its rhythm from time to time, and will even expect one big turnover the will lead to Seattle points. But it is simply hard for me to imagine the Seahawks being able to be able to run for big yards against the Patriots, and they don’t seem to have the weapons to compete through the air, where the Seahawks rank 31st in the league. Conversely, the Seahawks defense may be able to slow the Patriots’ attack, but not stop it. The Patriots have too many weapons to contend with, know how to effectively attack an opponent’s weakness, and have players they can exploit on the defensive side.

The game will likely unfold slowly, with both teams seeking to gain the advantage on field position, but I don’t think it will be long before the Patriots are able to establish some momentum and take the lead by halftime. I envision the third quarter being more of what we saw against the Broncos last week, with the Patriots sustaining long drives for scores, forcing the Seahawks to spend the fourth quarter trying to come back through the air. But Russell Wilson isn’t Peyton Manning, and the Patriots’ offense is far deadlier than anything the Seahawks have seen to date this season. Patriots 27 Seahawks 17.