NFL 2nd Round: Seattle-Atlanta

The final spot in the NFC Championship Game will be determine in Sunday’s early game when the Seattle Seahawks visit the Atlanta Falcons (1 PM ET, Fox). We have an odd circumstance where everyone seems sold on the fifth-seeded Seahawks and no one is solid on the top-seeded Falcons. Is this one about momentum or homefield? Can Atlanta overcome its recent postseason history? Here’s a breakdown of the matchup, some historical tidbits along with predictions tied to the Las Vegas betting lines.

THE MATCHUP: The injury factor is bigger here than any other NFL 2nd round game. Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons is one of the league’s top pass rushers, and he was lost for the balance of the season in last week’s win over Washington. Seattle still plays very physical up front, they still have tough corners, but now they don’t have anyone who can dominate the edge and get to Matt Ryan.

That’s a significant problem against this offense in this environment. Ryan will be working in the climate-controlled Georgia Dome, and his receiver tandem of Julio Jones and Roddy White are as good as any. Even if Seattle corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are up to the task, Ryan can go underneath to Tony Gonzalez. And while the running game hasn’t been good for Atlanta this year, thanks to the decline of Michael Turner, is it unreasonable to think the Falcon back can gin it up for one last run, the way Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw did last year for the Giants after poor regular seasons?

Atlanta’s matchup problem is much tougher with their defense. They don’t defend the run very well and there’s no getting around that Marshawn Lynch can run over them and control the line of scrimmage. The Falcons don’t get a lot of pressure on the quarterback, ranking near the bottom of the league in sacks, although against Russell Wilson it probably wouldn’t do them much good even if they did break the pocket. The pass coverage is nothing special other.

There are good individual players on this defense, from end John Abrahams to corner Dunta Robinson and they’ve relied all year on a bend-but-don’t break approach. It’s similar statistically to what New England was a year ago—bad in every individual category, but good in the bottom line of points allowed. The Patriots made it work at least to the Super Bowl and now the Falcons are hoping the same can happen on the NFC side.

THE CONTEXT: There’s no playoff history between these two teams, and even if I try and get creative and find some cross-sport rivalry between the cities, there’s nothing I can come up with. It’s just two franchises that never have won a Super Bowl, each has only got there one time (1998 Falcons, 2005 Seahawks) and Atlanta has all the pressure on them because they’re 0-3 with Ryan at quarterback in the playoffs.

THE VIEW FROM VEGAS:  Atlanta is a 2 ½ point favorite, and the fact it’s less than a field goal indicates that people see Seattle as a better team. Any line movements I’ve seen or heard of this past week have seen the line go down even further, suggesting that the Falcons have to be the first 1-seed in history to be able to play the “nobody believes in us card” in the second round of the playoffs. The Over/Under is on 46, joining the other 2nd round games in the high 40s.

PREDICTION: I’m going to start by saying I like the Over. The absence of Clemons removes the main obstacle to a big day from Ryan. Atlanta can’t stop Lynch and Wilson should at least be efficient. The only thing that will hold down scoring is that the Seattle running game will chew up time, but I still see the 46 threshold being cleared. I lean the Falcons to win. If the game turns high-scoring, Ryan is the better quarterback for a shootout and I also feel like the lack of respect Atlanta is getting will be a big motivator. Then let’s add in Seattle traveling across the country for the second straight week and playing an early game with bodies attuned to Pacific time. This one goes for the Falcons, 31-24.

Outright Winners: 3-0*
Pointspread Winners: 2-1
Totals Line: 1-2
*Recused myself from the Washington-Seattle case due to fan bias