This week the Atlanta Falcons face questions about both tactics and of a larger scope. The Seahawks roll into town for the Division Playoff with a spot in the NFC Title Game up for grabs. Not only does Atlanta need to find ways to defend Marshawn Lynch, limit Russell Wilson, and score against the NFL's stingiest defense, but the Falcons must also battle the demons of their recent playoff history and contend with the notion that their 13-3 record was a mirage.
Thanks to a historically weak schedule and consistently inept play from their opposition there are many who believe Atlanta should be a home underdog today. The Falcons battled the easiest schedule in the league this year, and the second cushiest slate in the last five years. It has been more than three months since Atlanta played a team that made the playoffs and Week 2 was the last time the Falcons met a team that is still alive heading into this weekend. In the victory over Washington on October 7, Redskin quarterback Robert Griffin III was injured and back-up Kirk Cousins threw two interceptions in nine pass attempts. Denver spotted the Falcons a 20-0 lead during Week 2 when Peyton Manning was picked off three times in the first quarter. Those are the only two games Atlanta played against playoff teams this season.
Regardless of how they won, wins over Washington and Denver count for something. However, Atlanta was the master this season of ugly wins over inferior teams. The Falcons split with Carolina, only winning the first matchup when Cam Newton fumbled late in the fourth quarter giving Atlanta a chance to cash in. It took a defensive touchdown and 55-yard field goal on the final play to beat Oakland in Week 6. Despite Matt Ryan's five interceptions, Atlanta beat anemic Arizona November 18. And let's not forget the win over New Orleans where the Saints dominated but Drew Brees tossed five interceptions to throw away the game.
As for history, it has not been rosy. Two years ago, following a bye, Atlanta was blown out at home 48-21 against Green Bay. Last season the Giants faced little resistance from the Falcons in a 24-2 win. In 2009 Arizona eliminated Atlanta in the Wild Card round. Not since 2004 have the Falcons won a playoff game. The last time Atlanta won two games in the same postseason was their run to the Super Bowl in 1998 where John Elway and the Broncos triumphed 34-21.
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The one constant for the Falcons has been an outstanding passing attack. Ryan finished the season ranked among the NFL's top five in passing yards, touchdowns thrown, and QB Rating while leading the league in completion percentage. With three receivers who hauled in 79 catches or more and accounted for nearly 3,500 yards, the aerial attack is difficult to handle.
For the Seahawks to win it is as easy as controlling the Atlanta passing game. The Falcons are among the worst running teams in the league and boasts a defense that is below average and banged up. In Atlanta's final game of the regular season against Tampa Bay DE John Abraham and CB Dunta Robinson were injured. Both are likely to try and play but at what level is yet to be determined.
There are a lot of reasons to believe the Seahawks may have the better team. Seattle won in Washington 24-14 last week. The Seahawks allow a league best 15.3 points a game. In the midst of a six game winning streak, Seattle has outscored opponents 217-74 during the run. The Seahawks are 5-1 this season against playoff teams. However, Seattle will be without DE Chris Clemmons who was injured in Washington and is out for the season with torn ACL.
The Falcons will go as far as Ryan takes them. In order for that to be further than the last few playoff appearances he will have to beat the best defense his team has played this year. The Falcons must win to silence the skeptics. It will take a rare -- but not unheard of -- quality effort against a good opponent to make it happen.