I've been hearing a lot about how the Falcons shouldn't be a problem for the Seahawks, but this game is far from a circled win. I know Atlanta's schedule was relatively soft, but no one puts together a 13-3 record in the modern NFL without doing a lot of things right. And as for them being 0-3 in the playoffs with head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, that first loss happened back in Ryan's rookie season in 2008 while the other two were suffered at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champions in 2010 (Packers) and 2011 (Giants). I have a hard time reading too much into defeats like those.
However, the Seahawks aren't exactly pushovers either. Wilson and his receivers will have their work cut out for them against Atlanta's strong pass defense, but the Falcons' 29th ranked run defense is going to have a hell of a time stopping Lynch from taking over the game. The battle on the other side of the ball is an old school strength-versus-strength matchup, with the Falcons' top flight passing attack going up against the Hawks' elite secondary (the Falcons' run game, thankfully, is not so hot). The special teams units also appear evenly matched, with both teams roughly equal in nearly every meaningful category (the lone exception being the Seahawks' exceptional kick return average).
Here are the main things I'm looking for in today's game:
1) Can the Seahawks stop Tony Gonzalez? Even if Sherman and Browner can keep Julio Jones and Roddy White in check on the outside, Ryan can still carve up the defense if Gonzalez can get separation on a consistent basis. The pressure's going to be on the safeties, linebackers, and nickelbacks to neutralize the future Hall of Famer.
2) Will either team get their pass rush going? With Clemons out for Seattle with a torn ACL and Johnathan Abraham questionable for Atlanta with an injured ankle, the pass rush for both teams will need to rely heavily on understudies like rookie Bruce Irvin and, uh, whoever the second-best guy on the Falcons happens to be (Jonathan Babineaux? Kroy Biermann? Vance Walker?).
3) Who will win the turnover battle? The Seahawks and Falcons have identical stats for the regular season in turnovers (18) and takeaways (31), so there's no telling who will have the advantage. With both teams featuring strong offenses, whichever defense manages to steal an extra drive or two from their opponent may very well end up deciding the game.
Kickoff can't get here soon enough.