Atlanta and Seattle have actually had similar records of success over the past 10 years, but the Seahawks have broken through in the playoffs, multiple times, in a way the Falcons never have. Matt Ryan might win his first MVP, but he'll never approach the higher echelon until he makes a playoff run. He's got a terrific opportunity against a Seahawks team that has struggled all year to find its identity.
It might be an emotional day at the Georgia Dome; this could be the last NFL game there ever, as the team moves into the new stadium next season. The Falcons have struggled to be considered a top-tier NFC team all season. Here is their chance.
No. 3 Seattle Seahawks (11-5-1) at No. 2 Atlanta Falcons (11-5)
When: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET, FOX
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Most recent meeting: October 16: Seahawks 26, Falcons 24. Christine Michel had his "breakthrough" game, scoring two touchdowns, including one in the fourth quarter, and a Steven Hauschka field goal secured the road win. Also, remember this play.
Simple Rating System numbers: Atlanta 8.5, Seattle, 2.1
Current line: Falcons by 3.
Ranking among four divisional matchups: Third. There's a big gap between three and four, but not as much with the top three: You can't go wrong with any of the non-Patriots games this weekend.
How the Falcons can win
1. Go deep. The Seahawks, with that offensive line, are not going to be putting a massive number of points on the board, which is gold for Matt Ryan and company, who will be able to find some more room in the Seahawks secondary with Earl Thomas still out. Ryan has been historically terrific this year, and he'll have plenty of space to work with. If the Seahawks shadow Julio Jones with Richard Sherman again, that's fine: The Falcons have other weapons, and with no Thomas, Ryan will be able to find them.
2. Take advantage of the Seahawks' greatest weakness. As we mentioned last week, the Seahawks might have the worst offensive line in all of football, not just among playoff teams. This plays right into the Falcons' hands, because their high-powered offense is already going to put a bunch of pressure on Russell Wilson. The defense can simply add to it. They don't need to sell out on the blitz; they can just hammer and whittle away until Seattle breaks. You just make Wilson have a perfect, Aaron Rodgers-esque game to beat you. And even then he might not.
3. Make Matt Ryan feel loved. Ryan, who is probably about to win the MVP, has obviously had his fair share of playoff foibles. He'll never have a better chance to overcome them than this. He's got a ton of weapons, he's got a wobbled opponent that nonetheless has a sterling reputation and, for that dramatic touch, he might be playing in the last NFL game ever at the Georgia Dome. This is his MVP season. He needs his playoff ascension moment. If he can't do it now, he never will.
How the Seahawks can win
1. See if you can get Thomas Rawls going again. The Seahawks have been waiting for their running game to show up all season, and it finally did in the Wild Card game against the Lions. The Falcons are better than the Lions, but it's still a defense where you can find some room. The best way to beat the explosive Falcons defense is to run the ball and control the clock, something that hasn't been easy to do with this offensive line. They'll need to repeat that Lions performance. They'll actually need to better it.
2. Trust in Russell Wilson. Wilson already has more playoff wins than Phil Simms and Drew Brees; he's actually tied with Dan Marino, Eli Manning, Jim Plunkett, Aaron Rodgers and Steve Young for 15th all-time. He's 8-3, while Ryan is 1-4. It's going to get crazy in the dome, and for all the injury headaches he's had this year, Wilson is more than equipped to handle it. (Besides, he's healthy now.) The opposing quarterback is thought to be a playoff underachiever; Wilson is thought the opposite. Time to prove it again.
3. Rally the troops. This is a proud franchise, a championship franchise, that has been frustrated how they've never quite been able to pull it all together this season. They've had injuries and some offensive headaches, but still: They are still the Seahawks. They're heavy underdogs against a team that has won one playoff game in 12 years … against Seattle, no less. The Seahawks can rarely play the "no one believed in us" card. In this game, they can. Sherman and company would love nothing more than to shut down the impending MVP.
This is a team wearing the Seahawks' uniforms, but this is not the old Seahawks. They're excited about their running game's resurgence, but that's more because of the Lions than anything the Seahawks' offensive line did. Some stats argue that the Falcons were easily the best team in the NFC this year, but no one quite believes it. This will be a chance for Ryan and company to show everyone what they've been missing.
Falcons 31, Seahawks 17.