If the Seahawks are going to find a way to win in Atlanta, they’re going to need to win the majority of these five key match-ups to do so. It’s a battle of ideologies in Atlanta, and the Seahawks need to validate theirs. The Falcons high flying, deep throwing, vertical offense couldn’t be more different than the Seahawks. The Seahawks hard hitting, turnover forcing, physically dominant defense couldn’t be more different than the Falcons. This will be a fun game to watch, and the players involved in these match-ups will make it so.
This has to be the most important match-up to watch for. No question. Far as I’m concerned the Falcons have the best receiver tandem in the NFL, fortunately for the Seahawks though they have the best corner tandem. I think the physicality of the Seahawks cornerbacks will be too much for the Atlanta receivers to handle, and they will be forced to get the ball to Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas a little more often than they’d like to. My biggest concern with this match-up though has to be Brandon Browners ability to stay in coverage. Nobody shuts down the receiver screen like Browner, but I am worried about his ability to stay with receivers downfield. I love Browner as much as the next guy, but there were several occasions last week where he either lost his footing entirely or was completely out of place in "coverage" or whatever it was he was doing. He got better as the game went on, but a healthy RG3 could have torn him apart. I’m going to attribute this mostly to rust though as he had just finished him four game suspension for using adderall. Allegedly. Richard Sherman will do just fine, methinks. As far as I’m concerned this guy is the best cornerback left in the playoffs. The loquacious corner always finds a way to get under opposing player’s skin, and he’s gonna have to find a way to do that on Sunday too. If Roddy White and Julio Jones aren’t taking swings at him post-game, hell, I’ll be some kind of disappointed. If the Seahawks win this match-up, they win the game.
2. John Abraham vs Breno Giacomini and Russell Okung
3. Russell Wilson vs. The Falcons Secondary
When people heard Mike Smith was playing his starters in the season finale against the Buccaneers, many pundits, analysts, etc. were left shaking their collective heads. Why risk injury in a game that couldn’t be more meaningless? He paid the price with injuries to arguably his two best players on defense, and one of those is defensive end John Abraham. He suffered an ankle injury that now has him questionable for Sunday’s game. I’m thinking he plays. The Falcons have serious depth issues in the pass rush, and Abraham not playing would be nothing short of disastrous. He accounts for over a third of the Falcons sacks, with ten in the regular season. Assuming he plays, he has one hell of a personnel match-up awaiting him. Abraham has the ability to line up just about anywhere, but seeing as he spends most of his time on the right side he will be greeted frequently by the Seahawks best linemen, and pro bowler and Russell Okung. If he can’t find a way to get past Okung, which wouldn’t surprise me in the least, he might get shifted to the left side for a much more favorable match-up with Giacomini. Giacomini has struggled with fast pass rushers in the past, so this could become an issue. My bet though, is Abraham isn’t nearly as effective being hobbled by his ankle injury. King of hard to push off, or get any speed with a taped up, banged up ankle.
4. Tony Gonzalez vs Seahawks Defense
The Falcons defense doesn’t get a whole lot of credit or recognition in this league, and that’s probably because they give up yards like nobodys business. What the Falcons do well though, and the secondary in particular, is force turnovers. They are tied with the Seahawks for the fourth best turnover differential at +13 and are also at fourth with the Seahawks (and Redskins) in forced turnovers with 31 in the NFC. This is the same group that intercepted Peyton Manning three times in one quarter, so Russell Wilson had best be careful with the football. The two players in the Atlanta secondary that really stick out for me though, are William Moore and Asante Samuel. Calling these two ball hawking is somewhat of an understatement. I’ve seen William Moore make interceptions that required across field sprints, and few in the game jump routes better than Asante Samuel. Keeping the ball away from these guys is probably the best idea.
Putting Tony Gonzalez against the entire Seahawks defense seems like a bit of a stretch, to be sure, but nobody seems all that sure as to who will end up covering the future hall of famer. Kam Chancellor seems like a good option, but then again, it almost seems suicidal not having a safety over the top against the Falcons. My bet is that he’ll get a heavy dose of Bobby Wagner and Jeremy Lane. Maybe even at the same time for most of the game. If Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner can find a way to contain the Falcons best receivers, expect this passing game to go through Tony Gonzalez. The all-pro tight end still has it at the ripe young age of 36, and nearly hit 1,000 yards on the season (his best with the Falcons). He is motivated, and still one of the best in the game. He’s going to need to have a hall of famer type of performance for the Falcons to win, and I wouldn’t put it past him for a second. Malcolm Smith is an intriguing option in coverage against Gonzalez. He runs a 4.4, and his tackling ability shouldn’t be too much of an issue in the ground game because, to put this nicely, Michael Turner sucks. Smith has also been getting better as the season’s gone on. It’s a leap of faith, but I wouldn’t be all that shocked if you see him on Tony Gonzalez on occasion. Hopefully not alone though.
5. Bruce Irvin vs Atlanta’s Offensive Tackles
I wrote earlier this week on Bruce Irvin, and still stand by everything I said. The kids got game. Only problem, so does the Falcons offensive line. They are one of the most physical groups in the league, and they’ve also been called out a few times for being the dirtiest. Filling Chris Clemons shoes is no easy thing to do, but having your first start against an offensive line of this caliber is some kind of daunting. Bruce Irvin, like the aforementioned John Abraham can line up just about anywhere, but plays mostly on the right side. That means he’ll get a healthy heaping of Sam Baker. He’s going to need to find a way to beat him, and get to the quarterback, because if "Matty Ice" has time in the pocket things get a whole lot more difficult for the rest of the defense. He had one sack last week filling in for Clemons, and set a Seattle rookie record with eight. I’m guessing he’s up to the task.