Once the Green Bay Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings 24-10 on Saturday in the NFC Wild Card Round of the playoffs, the pool of possible playoff opponents for the Atlanta Falcons dwindled to just two: the Washington Redskins or the Seattle Seahawks, who play Sunday against one another.
Whichever team wins Sunday’s 4:30 p.m. ET game will travel to the Georgia Dome next Sunday, Jan. 13 to face the top-seeded Falcons.
Who would the Falcons rather face?
Because Atlanta's offense, when reaching its potential, can score on any team in the NFL, the biggest determining factors lie in defense.
Atlanta averaged 123.2 yards given up on the ground per game this season and were the 21st-ranked run defense in the league. Washington would bring in the league’s best rushing offense, averaging 169.3 yards per game. Seattle’s rushing offense is ranked third, gaining 161.2 yards per game on the ground.
Both potential opponents have top-notch running backs featured in the offense. Washington rookie Alfred Morris averaged 4.8 yards per carry and gained 1,613 yards this season. Only Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was better.
Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch fell just 23 yards shy of Morris’ pace with 1,590 yards on the ground and averaged just a bit more at 5.0 yards per carry. Lynch ranked third in the league in rushing.
Atlanta wouldn’t be getting any kind of break by facing either rushing attack. Morris gained 115 yards on 18 carries back in Week 5 when Washington lost to Atlanta. The Falcons didn’t contain Morris, but won anyway. But that was before Washington’s streak.
The Redskins lost six of their first nine games (including once to the Falcons) to start the season, but rattled off seven wins in a row to win the NFC East crown and enter the playoffs with a ton of momentum.
Seattle has similar momentum—maybe not as much—with seven wins in its last eight games, including a win over NFC West champ, the San Francisco 49ers. Where Seattle gets really scary for opposing teams is the fact that the Seahawks scored 40 or more points three times over their last five games and averaged 38.6 points per game during that five-game winning streak.
The numbers point to Seattle as the team Atlanta would rather face based on the passing game of each team, and it’s not just as simple as Seattle’s passing offense is ranked No. 27 and Washington’s No. 20.
Both teams are led by rookie quarterbacks; Washington has Robert Griffin III and Seattle has Russell Wilson. When you think of rookie quarterbacks, you typically think of mistakes, even though these two rookie made few in 2012.
Wilson, however, made more mistakes. He threw 27 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Griffin threw 24 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
The Falcons ranked fifth in the league with a plus-13 give-away, take-away record and picked opposing passers off 20 times this season. In fact, Atlanta’s defense altered the face of games by confusing opposing quarterbacks, with examples being three picks of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and five in one game from the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees.
Atlanta is going to want to face the opposing rookie quarterback that makes more mistakes, and that’s Wilson with two more interceptions and an extra lost fumble to Griffin.
Also remember that even though Atlanta beat Washington in Week 5, Griffin was knocked out of the game in the third quarter by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Would Atlanta still have won had Griffin played the entire game?
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.