Four years later, we’re doing it again.
In the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, the Seattle Seahawks must travel to face the Atlanta Falcons for the right to play in the NFC Championship game. The result last time was exciting for most, heartbreaking for Seahawks fans. While those of us rooting for Seattle are hoping for a much different result, the truth is that the Falcons are an even better team than they were back then. How much better?
For a clearer grasp on that picture, I sent five Qs to Dave Choate at The Falcoholic. In turn, he sent me back five As that corresponded to my Qs. Here they be:
Q: Matt Ryan is the MVP this season, I'm okay with that, but Kyle Shanahan wasn't considered a genius pre-2016. What's the big difference with the offense this season? What made Ryan go from reliably-good to consistently-great and is the impending loss of Shanahan a troubling one?
A: Really, I think it's a perfect marriage of talent and scheme, like chocolate Tom Brady meeting peanut butter Bill Belichick. Matt Ryan has never had a scheme that drew out every ounce of his ability before, and Shanahan has never worked with a quarterback of Ryan's caliber. The 2015 season saw the two learning from one another and ironing out how this was all going to work, and it featured Ryan learning to change up the way he thinks about the game a bit. We're seeing the result right now.
I don't think you can overstate how important the upgrades to the supporting cast have been, as well. Taylor Gabriel was just a Browns castoff, but his speed has been lethal for this Falcons offense. Adding Alex Mack at center gave the team a huge upgrade at its weakest position on the offensive line, and quality pass protection makes a huge difference for a high-powered offense. Throw in some upgrades at tight end, Tevin Coleman's sudden ability to catch the football, and Mohamed Sanu showing up to take over for an aging Roddy White, and suddenly you're there. Taken individually, only a few of these signings and changes would move the needle, but the net effect have been transformative.
As far as losing Shanahan goes, it's obviously going to be a downgrade to go from Shanahan to anyone else, because this is one of the best offenses in league history, so it's not like you can go up. I think the important thing will be keeping the talent on hand and trying to keep some continuity, which could mean quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur or even wide receivers coach Raheem Morris getting the offensive coordinator gig. We're hopeful that Shanahan will be back, though.
Q: Atlanta's defense gave up 31 touchdown passes, 15 touchdown runs. What area of the defense would you attack consistently on Saturday if you were the Seahawks?
A: I'd try to establish the run first. The Falcons are weak in the middle of their defensive line and still struggle to defend the run, and the teams that have beaten them this year have tended to be able to exploit that. The Eagles, in particular, threw a lot of short passes and relied on Ryan Mathews being able to gain yardage up the middle, and Seattle would be smart to try the same strategy.
When things tighten up near the goal line, I'd definitely try to pass to large, capable targets like Jimmy Graham, because the Falcons have struggled with tight ends and there sometimes appears to be communication issues in the red zone that leads to problems. You'll be able to run and pass against Atlanta, though, because while this defense has a ton of promise, they're not yet at the point where they can play an above average offense without getting gashed a bit.
Q: The Falcons are one win away from the NFC CG and two wins from the SB but historically have fallen shy of expectations with just one SB appearance (a loss) and a 1-2 record in the NFC CG (3-5 in divisional round). Are fans hopeful or cynical, would you say, about this game?
A: I've been genuinely surprised by the optimism. Some of it is outlandish, with fans predicting big victories over the Seahawks, but most of it is more tempered. I'm personally optimistic that the Falcons can win, but I do think it'll be a close game. I think the historically great performance from the offense, the fact that we're no longer in the Mike Smith era, and the injury to Earl Thomas has really made people believe this Falcons team can win.
I really think Falcons fans are ready to believe in this team, and it's partly a function of not believing heading into this season. There were a lot of "fire Kyle Shanahan" takes, a lot of dour predictions, a lot of fans who thought my 8-8 prediction was way too optimistic, and so on. They've been won over, and now they think the sky is the limit. I guess we'll see.
Q: The Seahawks play better, like most teams, when they can protect the QB. What sort of player do you think Vic Beasley is -- elite All-Pro vs somewhat-lucky pass rusher who led NFL in sacks -- and who else besides him could give Seattle the most trouble up front?
A: I think Vic Beasley is somewhere in between. I don't think he's a truly elite edge rusher just yet, but I think he's a very talented, very productive one, and if he's up against a tackle that can't handle his speed, he can certainly eat. Given the state of the Seattle offensive line and the way Beasley has come on over the second half of the season in particular, I imagine he'll have a nice game.
Your other major concern is probably going to be Dwight Freeney, who despite his age remains an effective pass rusher capable of giving a tackle like Fant problems with his toolkit of moves. Beasley and Freeney are probably the key to ensuring the passing game doesn't get rolling, because Wilson's too good to be left unmolested in the pocket.
Q: Desmond Trufant went out a few weeks ago. Who is his replacement and how has the pass defense looked in the interim?
A: The pass defense is really coming along nicely. You can still beat this team underneath, with passes to the tight end, and occasionally deep, but the cornerbacks look very good. Second year pro Jalen Collins has shown physicality and a nose for the ball over the last few weeks, while Robert Alford stepped in as the team's top cornerback and has played at a very high level since doing so. The team has gotten more than you'd anticipate out of the likes of undrafted free agent Brian Poole and converted wide receiver C.J. Goodwin, too.
You can attack Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, this team's safeties, with some success. They can also make you pay, though, because Neal forces a lot of fumbles and delivers big hits, while Allen is somewhat of a budding ballhawk in his second year as a starter. As long as the pass rush spins up enough to force quicker throws, this secondary looks very good even with Trufant out.