GEORGIA DOME ATLANTA
SUNDAY 1 P.M. EST
Seattle general manager John Schneider greeted each player as he entered the locker room following Sunday's 24--14 comeback victory over the Redskins. "Great job!" he hollered. "Lot of football left! We got a lot of ball to play!"
For a team that has advanced past the division round just once since 1984, that's assuming a lot—but perhaps Schneider's onto something. Every year there's a steamrollering team that opponents would prefer to avoid in the postseason, and this year it's the Seahawks, whose stout defense, punishing running game and precocious rookie quarterback make them a real threat against any foe on the path to New Orleans.
Next up, Sunday in Atlanta, they get the NFC's top-seeded Falcons, who feel they haven't gotten the respect they deserve despite a 13--3 finish but have no one to blame but themselves after finishing the year 2--2 and having gone 0--3 in the postseason over the past four years. (The Seahawks, meanwhile, peaked toward the end of 2012 and have one major Pete Carroll--era postseason upset, over the Saints in January 2011, to hang their hats on.)
The Seahawks pose a difficult matchup for Atlanta: Their big, physical secondary, with three starters standing 6' 3" or taller, is perfectly capable of handling Roddy White and Julio Jones, the Falcons' big, physical wideouts.
"That's going to be a tough test, but we're up for the challenge," says Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner. If they can limit the pair, it bodes well for the Seahawks' chances.
Seattle uses size in the secondary to its advantage by playing plenty of press coverage. The 6' 3" Richard Sherman and the 6' 4" Browner like to jam opponents at the line, then use their bodies to bump receivers off routes or inhibit their ability to leap for passes. In Matt Ryan, Atlanta has the type of passer who can get the ball downfield, past that tough initial contact, but the Falcons' strength has been shorter bubble screens and three-step drops that get the ball into the hands of receivers quickly. That may not be the optimal way to approach this tough Seattle bunch, especially with cat-quick safety Earl Thomas and talented rookie pass rusher Bruce Irvin ever lurking, busting up plays near or behind the line of scrimmage.
Including Sunday's wild-card game, the Seahawks have won six straight and eight of nine, and they've seemingly bucked their ongoing struggles on the road, having won three straight away from CenturyLink Field, allowing 17 or fewer points in each game. And that's key for this team. The NFL handbook will tell you that two things travel well in the playoffs: a stout defense (Seattle ranked No. 1 in points allowed) and a strong running game (Marshawn Lynch was third in rushing).
But the X factor—the guy who can make Seattle's playoff run more than just one surprise win—is cool and confident quarterback Russell Wilson, who has accounted for 23 touchdowns in his last 10 games (19 of them passing).
"Forget about maturing—he is mature," Carroll says of his 24-year-old signal-caller. "I don't care who you've got, I don't want anybody else. I want that guy."
When Seattle has the ball ...
Marshawn Lynch sets the table, creating passing opportunities as LBs and safeties bite on play-action fakes. Russell Wilson is also a running threat: He had 67 yards on eight carries against Washington on Sunday and 92 in a Dec. 16 win over Buffalo. Make no mistake, though: Wilson prides himself on being an efficient passer first, and he has an underrated WR corps in Sidney Rice, a terrific intermediate receiver; the speedy Doug Baldwin; and the big-play-making Golden Tate.
Atlanta's undersized run defense has struggled against mobile QBs: Cam Newton ran the read option for 394 yards in two games against the Falcons, and the RG3-led Redskins rushed for 129. Russell Wilson was third among NFL QBs with 489 rushing yards, and he runs between the tackles as well as on the edges.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Tackles broken by Marshawn Lynch, fourth highest among all players.
Missed tackles forced by Golden Tate, third most among receivers.
NAM Y. HUH (SHERMAN)
BULLY FOR YOU! The robust CB duo of Richard Sherman (25) and Brandon Browner has made life hell for even the biggest receivers.
AL TIELEMANS (LYNCH)