DANNY ONEIL

Seahawks’ return to Atlanta in playoffs has a loaded backstory

Jan 13, 2017, 10:47 AM
Four seasons ago, the Seahawks just missed a trip to the NFC title game due to a loss in Atlanta. (...
Four seasons ago, the Seahawks just missed a trip to the NFC title game due to a loss in Atlanta. (AP)
(AP)

Saturday’s playoff game is going to be a test of strengths in Atlanta.

The Falcons have the league’s top offense while the Seahawks have been the league’s gold-standard for defense over the past five years.

Atlanta has Julio Jones, the Seahawks have Richard Sherman. The Falcons have Matt Ryan, the Seahawks counter with Russell Wilson.

The game, however, may be decided by a battle of weaknesses.

Can Seattle’s rushing offense – which has been so fickle this season – carry forward the success it showed last week against an Atlanta run defense that allowed more than 4.5 yards per carry during the regular season?

Those are the mechanics of a divisional playoff game that has a loaded backstory.

O’Neil: Will 4th time be the charm for Seahawks as road divisional playoff game?

Atlanta is where the Seahawks first saw how great they could be, erasing a 20-points deficit in the final 13 minutes only to lose on a last-second field goal. It’s the significance of that game that is important, not the specifics.

It was in that loss that Seattle showed it possessed everything it needed for a championship run. Well, almost everything. The Seahawks went out and got defensive linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in the offseason, but that game in Atlanta – and the way Wilson led the Seahawks back – left no doubt that Seattle had arrived as a force to be reckoned with in the NFL.

Four years later, that force to be reckoned with is a five-point underdog on the road against a Falcons team it beat in the regular season.

But actually, the Seahawks match up really well against this Falcons team.

Atlanta’s defense – statistically – looks very much like Detroit’s, and you saw how the Seahawks ran with impunity against the Lions. And as good as the Falcons have been on offense – and they’ve been the best in the league – Seattle’s defense has shown a remarkable tendency to neuter high-octane offenses like that whether it was the Saints on Monday night in 2013 or Denver in the Super Bowl that season. Of course, the Seahawks also had Earl Thomas in those games, and he’s out for the rest of the year.

The Falcons’ defense was decidedly mediocre this season and downright bad when it came to stopping the run. Atlanta does have Vic Beasley, who led the league in sacks with 15.5, but he’s a speed edge rusher as opposed to the game-wrecking interior linemen that have given Seattle so much trouble this season. Aaron Donald of the Rams. Gerald McCoy of Tampa Bay. Ndamukong Suh of Miami. Calais Campbell of Arizona. Atlanta doesn’t have anyone like that.

And last week, the Seahawks showed that it is possible for them to follow Pete Carroll’s blueprint, running the ball ruthlessly for three quarters, softening up the underbelly until Detroit exposed its chin for the knockout punch in the fourth quarter.

We’re going to see if Seattle can do that on the road against a significantly better opponent, and consistency has not exactly been Seattle’s calling card in 2016. Not for an offense that failed to score a touchdown in three separate games in the regular season. Not for a defense that held Atlanta in check for three of the four quarters in that regular-season meeting, but gave up 21 points in an 11-minute span of the third quarter.

Now, the two teams play again in a repeat of that playoff game that proved to be as inspiring as it was disappointing for Seattle. If Atlanta is where we first saw how great this team could be four years ago, it is now the place that will tell us how far that greatness can still go.

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