On Sunday, a hot rookie quarterback, an outstanding rookie class, a bruising running back and an organization with all the answers? Lowdown can only be talking about one team: the 2008 Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons can relate to what the Seahawks are going through, but that does not mean they can stop them. Meanwhile, the Texans try to go play-action against the Patriots, because they are the Texans, and what else are they going to do?

Sunday

Seahawks at Falcons

1 p.m. Sunday, Fox

Line: Falcons by 2 ½

There are a lot of and spurs and detours on the road to becoming the hottest team in the NFL.

The big Seahawks story during the free agency period was the signing of quarterback Matt Flynn. Flynn was Aaron Rodgers’ backup in Green Bay; he earned national notice when he threw six touchdowns in a rest-stop game in Week 17 of 2011. General managers have overreacted with Pavlovian predictability to one-game wonders for so long that we gathered up the Rob Johnson drool cups and waited for someone to sign Flynn for $1.98 less than the Broncos gave Peyton Manning. Executives around the league suddenly showed restraint, and the Seahawks signed Flynn for three years and $19.5 million, the kind of modest commitment that allows a team to remain flexible, on many levels.

Flynn looks like a pretty good quarterback; he has had other coffee-cup appearances over the years and never trips over his shoelaces. The Seahawks, with all of their other assets, would probably have been a wild-card team with Flynn at the helm, but they would not be the hottest team in the NFL. Their key free agent decision was not signing Flynn, but leaving plenty of room for Plan B, because they realized Plan A was more of an A-minus.

The big Seahawks story during the draft was the selection of Bruce Irvin in the first round. Lots of draft analysts called Irvin a reach, including me. Irvin entered the draft as a workout wonder with lots of collegiate “I’m faster than this chubby kid” sacks; he caused Mike Mamula flashbacks in those of us who only have limited film study time and resources.

Irvin recorded eight sacks this year and was a member of the Robert Griffin Harassment Committee on Sunday (a committee which included Mike Shanahan and the guy who mows the lawn). Looking back on Irvin’s college game tape, as I did last May, it was easy to see what Seahawks general manager John Schneider saw: a great athlete who was misused by West Virginia because it did not have enough great athletes, a 240-pound end rusher who was often assigned to stand in front of a 310-pound tackle and be obliterated.

Irvin was a fine example of Schneider and Pete Carroll’s hand-in-glove player acquisition style: Carroll has a system that needs certain player types, Schneider and the scouts know to dig deep to find those types, and neither cares what the draft peanut gallery thinks.

There were even better examples of the Schneider-Carroll system on display in late April. Bobby Wagner was hanging around the late rounds of many draft boards and off the radar of many draftniks (many of us don’t get a lot of time to break down Utah State film). The Seahawks selected him in the second round and made him a better Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate than Irvin. Oh, and speaking of Rookie of the Year candidates, Russell Wilson. According to the Football Outsiders Draft Report Card, the Seahawks draft earned grades ranging from B (John Czarnecki at FoxSports.com) to D-minus (Jason Cole at Yahoo!), with an average grade in the C-range. That’s not to call anyone out – there but by the grace of “my outlets did not ask me to assign grades” go I – but to show how much we know, and how much Schneider and Carroll know.

The big Seahawks story during preseason was Terrell Owens. Remember that? Flynn-to-Owens was quite the preseason combination: five targets, zero receptions. Wilson found Owens for one 40-yard catch, but reports out of Seattle camp described the usual allotment of Owens demands and Owens tantrums, this time without the traditional “coupla good games” waiting period. Carroll was in the process of deciding he preferred Wilson to Flynn, and he didn’t need Owens’ opinions on the matter; Owens has a way of agreeing with you in a way that makes you wish he didn’t.

Close your eyes and try to picture this delightful Seahawks run with Owens in tow: catching 10 passes against the Bills but getting shut out and pouting against the 49ers, demanding the ball, making sure the quarterback controversy (recall that there was a midseason Bench Wilson movement) was as controversial as possible. You cannot picture it.

Flynn, the rookie class and Owens remind us that the road to being the hottest team in the NFL is the road not taken. Another team would have spent the season watching Flynn bicker with Owens while some safe draft pick like Melvin Ingram made a minimal contribution. The Seahawks must now strike while their iron is so hot. When everything cools in a year or two, they may find they have become a perennial playoff team that no one thinks very highly of, like the 2012 Atlanta Falcons.

Last Year’s Model. Few teams have done more things right in the span of a few months than the Falcons did in 2008. Owner Arthur Blank hired general manager Thomas Dimitroff, one of the few Patriots expatriates who does not come across as someone who secretly jars his toenail clippings, then Mike Smith, an organization-minded coach with some forward-thinking tactical ideas. They signed Michael Turner and yoked him up, then drafted not just Matt Ryan, but current starters Sam Baker, Thomas DeCoud, and Kroy Biermann, plus useful part-timer Henry Douglas and now-departed starter Curtis Lofton. All of these moves launched the team to 11-5 after a 4-12 Michael Vick-Bobby Petrino Meteor of Skeeviness impact. The Falcons became the hottest team in the NFL.

Five years later, they are just a 13-3 team that clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs but has attracted more skeptics than a James Randi speaking engagement. Most of the principal characters from 2008 are still here. Ryan is an established Pro Bowl quarterback. Baker has shaken off multiple injuries to make himself useful again. Biermann and DeCoud slowly developed into high-quality defenders. Turner has been beaten down by years of plowing but can still help. Roddy White and John Abraham were already there in 2008, and they are still important individuals in 2012. All the old faces are here, but they are no longer talked about because they are old faces.

Dimitroff and Smith are also still around. Dimitroff still makes wily moves. He acquired Asante Samuel from the Eagles for a seventh-round pick. Samuel takes some ribbing in Lowdown for his quilted-softness tackling approach, but he is very effective in off-coverage and can still bait quarterbacks into throwing interceptions. The Eagles thought Samuel was the problem in their secondary; after he left they watched Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie put maximum effort into filling out their direct deposit paperwork and minimum effort into everything else. Getting Samuel for pocket change was a coup, and recent drafts have brought Julio Jones, Jacquizz Rodgers, Sean Weatherspoon and other reminders that the Falcons have not spent the last five years standing still. Smith, meanwhile, has stuck to his guns on fourth-and-short and allowed Dirk Koetter to arrive and bring some new ideas (like “Michael Turner is too old and slow for 25 carries per game”) to the offense.

The Falcons are a great team. I say this because they are 56-24 in the last five years; beat several playoff teams (Broncos, Redskins) and near-playoff teams (Giants, Cowboys) this year; have a roster full of veteran stars, up-and-comers and one Hall of Famer; and have clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I have to say it because the Falcons get so little love that they need to hear something nice once in a while.

The Falcons are 0-3 in the playoffs in the Dimitroff-Smith-Ryan era. This matters as much as any three-item trend that dates back to 2009. Flip a coin three times in four years, and there’s a 12.5 percent chance that it will come up tails three times and a 0.0 percent chance that it choked any of those times. The Seahawks are on a six-game winning streak, which matters much more, but does not totally erase the fact that they were a .500-ish team from the beginning of 2010 through Thanksgiving.

What matters Sunday is not who is the hottest team in football or the smartest organization of the last half-decade, but who matches up well with whom.

Small Advantages Add Up. The Seahawks have the most efficient running game in the NFL, mostly because of Marshawn Lynch and the offensive line, partially because of Wilson and the option threat, with Robert Turbin and others pitching in. The Falcons allowed 1,971 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns this year. This is a big Seahawks advantage.

Wilson and the Seahawks passing game get better every week. The Falcons will have Dunta Robinson and John Abraham back from injuries sustained in the Falcons’ weird Week 17 meaningless endangerment game. At the risk of going against the current Wilson’s Sweat Cures Blindness storyline, this is a wash.

The Seahawks have the best secondary in the NFL, and their pass rush will still be effective without Chris Clemons, who sustained a serious injury when he tripped over a garden spade in Washington. The Falcons have a diverse, dangerous and incredibly experienced receiving corps. This is also a wash, or close to it.

The Falcons running game has improved now that Rodgers replaces Turner on downs where they hope to gain more than 10 feet, but it is still not a strength. The Seahawks run defense is also not their biggest strength, but it can be very stout in short-yardage situations. This is crucial. The Falcons offense ranks last in the NFL in Power Success, according to Football Outsiders: They are terrible on third-and-short, fourth-and-short (don’t cringe, Falcons fans) and at the goal line. The Seahawks defense ranks third at stopping opponents in these situations. The Seahawks are likely to get some 7-3 swings in this game: Their long drives end in seven, Falcons long drives end in three, all because of what happens in short-yardage situations. The ability to punch the ball home at the goal line will take pressure of the Seahawks kicker, whoever he is. (It’s our old pal Ryan Longwell, who may be rusty after barbecuing with Brett Favre for six months.)

Sum everything up, and the Seahawks should win. This is not because they are the hottest team in the NFL or because Wilson sparkles. It is not because anyone in the Falcons organization has crashed into some transparent aluminum ceiling. It’s because smart executives and coaches bump into each other in the playoffs, when their rosters are in different developmental phases, and someone has to win. The Falcons will still be very good after Sunday, the Seahawks will be even hotter, and neither should have any regrets about the roads not traveled.

Prediction: Seahawks 24, Falcons 20

***

Texans at Patriots

4:30 p.m. Sunday, CBS

Line: Patriots by 9

One of the tricks of the preview-writing trade is to build some tension and suspense. My goal is to keep you guessing about who I will pick, and analysis, insights and perspectives led me to that unanticipated conclusion. Barring the ability to do these things, I generally tell a Jets joke and move on as fast as possible.

This game features the conference powerhouse of the last decade versus a team that played last week as if getting knocked out in the second round of the playoffs was a stated organizational goal. Everything that can possibly be said about the Patriots has already been said in the 22 playoff previews I have written and the hundreds you have read in the past 12 years. The Texans, for all their charms, clearly and obviously peaked circa mid-November. Nothing from their wild-card win over the Bengals can be spun forward as a sign of momentum or progress. Their 42-14 loss to the Patriots in mid-December is a blinking highway arrow that steers all but the most contrary drivers into one inevitable lane. The Patriots will win, easily, handily, in a way similar to the way they often win games like these against opponents like these.

Boy, how about that Jets midweek press conference. What a load of hooey that was, huh? Am I right?

Play-action, Inaction. Before completely writing the Texans off, let’s look at what works in their offense, and what wasn’t working in last week’s narrow victory.

figure_1_Andre_Johnson_Open_on_Play_action
Figure 1
Figure 1 shows a play from the first quarter of the Bengals game. It’s a typical bit of Texans strategy. The Texans line up in an offset I-formation with base personnel, and at the snap this looks like one of their zone running plays. The right tackle and tight end Garrett Graham (88) double-team the defensive end, while most of the other linemen step to their right and try to scoop the nearby defenders. Everything looks like “run right,” including fullback James Casey (86) charging into the middle and Arian Foster (23) starting to his right for a fake handoff from Matt Schaub (8).

The Texans use running plays that look like this a lot, and they have many play-action passes designed to complement them. Here, Casey and Foster run short pass routes into the left and right flats after their block-and-handoff fakes. This forces the linebackers, who were already sucked toward the line of scrimmage by all the run faking, to hold their level, creating lots of open space. The Bengals are in zone defense, and with the cornerback about to pass Andre Johnson (80) off to safety Reggie Nelson (20), Schaub fires the ball to his most dangerous receiver. Nelson was backpedalling for fear of a deep pass, so there is an open window for a 19-yard gain.

This is a simple design, though there is subtlety in the details. Putting Casey, Graham and Kevin Walter (83) on one side of the formation, for example, limits what the Bengals can do in coverage against Johnson on the other side. The important thing is that this play gets the ball to Johnson and picks up 19 yards. The Texans need to take regular downfield shots to keep their offense from plodding to a halt, especially when trying to keep up with the Patriots. To take those downfield shots, Schaub must take his time with his reads and feel confident in what he sees.

Figure_2_Schaub_rushes_his_read
Figure 2
Unfortunately, Schaub was too content to check down against the Bengals, even when the short receiver was not open. Figure 2 shows an example from late in the third quarter. The Texans face first-and-18 after a penalty in the red zone, and they abandon their play-action attack for something more conventional. They run mirrored routes on both sides of the field, with Graham and Owen Daniels (81) running to the corners while Walter and Johnson square-in. The Bengals keep two safeties in deep zones behind man coverage, but the safeties are wisely shaded to the Johnson-Daniels side.

Schaub rushes an incomplete pass to Walter on this play, even though Walter is blanketed and the Bengals do not mount much of a pass rush. The two blue lines show more inviting pass targets. Graham gets away from his linebacker easily, and the safety to that side of the field is both shaded inside Graham and late to react. With an on-time, on-target pass, Schaub could hit Graham in the end zone.

Granted, the margin for error on the Graham pass is tight, and the Texans are trying to protect the lead and can afford to be a little conservative. But there is another open receiver. The defenders try to switch receivers when Johnson cuts inside of Daniels, but the exchange is sloppy, and Johnson is wide open when Schaub throws to Walter. This is the Texans’ best receiver, open for a safe pass, in position to gain precious yards after the catch. Schaub rushes his reads, so he never sees Johnson.

Schaub was in a constant rush to throw into the flats against the Bengals. Sometimes, Foster or Daniels outran a linebacker for a significant gain. Other times, a short pass to Casey became a pick-six for the Bengals, or a rushed throw to Walter forced the Texans to settle for a field goal. Keep settling for field goals against the Patriots, and it will be 28-12 before you know it.

The Texans can stay in the game against the Patriots if they execute lots of plays like Figure 1. But they face many problems. First, play-action passes are of limited usefulness when playing from behind, and as Week 14 reminded us, the Patriots have many ways to make you play from behind. Second, the absence of a viable third receiver forces the Texans to over-rely on players like Graham and Casey as receivers. This makes life easier for opponents who lack deep secondaries, like the Patriots: They can roll coverage to Johnson’s side and dare you to beat them with seven-yard passes to fullbacks. You cannot beat the Patriots with seven-yard passes to fullbacks.

The Game of Inches. The Texans organization, like their offense, is methodical. They have been the slowest developing team in NFL history, inching from expansion team to .500 team to playoff team across a decade. One of these years, they will inch past the Patriots, but the Texans have spent the past month proving that they are still about a mile away.

Prediction: Patriots 28, Texans 17