With an extra week off as the conference's top team, the refreshed Atlanta Falcons will play host to the surging Seattle Seahawks next Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff matchup in the raucous Georgia Dome.
Seattle hasn't lost a game by more than seven points all season long, but fell behind 14-0 early against the Washington Redskins on Wild Card Weekend. The Seahawks then stormed back, and were aided by Robert Griffin III's knee injury to pull out a 24-14 road win.
It is too bad that two of the hottest, most exciting teams in the league had to play each other in Round 1, but now the Seahawks will encounter the most consistent, steady team in the NFC.
Fifth-year quarterback Matt Ryan for the Falcons has had an impressive start to his young career in his own right, but has failed to notch a postseason win. Three one-and-done performances have defined his legacy to date, but he looks to have taken a big step up in 2012.
The combination of rookie QB Russell Wilson and RB Marshawn Lynch makes Seattle one of the more dangerous offenses in the league—and they have the No. 1 scoring defense on their side, to boot.
This is sure to be a physical, entertaining showdown. Can the Seahawks continue their outstanding hot streak, or will the Falcons bounce back from a season-ending home loss to the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers?
Here is a full preview of this exciting clash, including the biggest deciding factors and a prediction of who will ultimately prevail.
When: Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1 p.m. ET
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Can Matt Ryan Break through in the Postseason?
It's not as though Ryan ended the season on a high note. He wound up averaging 5.4 yards per attempt in the 22-17 loss to the Bucs, which is just a little more than the 5.31 he has averaged in his three playoff losses (h/t Pro-Football-Reference.com).
Ryan, as hinted at earlier, took a big step this season. He threw for a career-high 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns, while also completing a personal-best 68.2 percent of his passes.
Between the headlines created by the three outstanding rookie QBs, Peyton Manning's stirring comeback and the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan is often lost in translation in the elite quarterback conversation.
This is Matty Ice's big opportunity to prove himself, and it thankfully comes with home-field advantage. He has been nearly invincible in Atlanta throughout his career, as he boasts a 33-5 career record as a starter at home.
With weapons like Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, there shouldn't be many excuses for Ryan not to have a playoff victory on his resume considering how talented he is in his own right.
How Will Atlanta Stack up against a Legitimate Super Bowl Contender?
The Falcons should not apologize for going 13-3. But do consider: They played only one current playoff team all year long—Denver in Week 2. Thanks to three Peyton Manning interceptions in the first quarter, the Falcons won 27-21 at home. The Broncos are a much different team now—and so are the Seahawks.
The other playoff team Atlanta beat was the very team the Seahawks toppled on Sunday. Meanwhile, Seattle has beaten the likes of the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers (sort of)—all of whom are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
There is no doubt that RGIII's injury will be a big source of buzz and debate over the Seahawks' recent victory, but their chances shouldn't be dismissed on the road. Their season turned around with an overtime victory at Soldier Field over the Chicago Bears, who started the year 7-1 and barely missed the playoffs.
Thus, it shouldn't be all that surprising for the Seahawks to pull the upset. But there is something to be said about the Falcons' knack for pulling out close games themselves throughout the year.
Atlanta's lack of elite competition may really hurt in this one, though, and it only adds to the sky-high expectations for the home team. To say the least, this isn't your typical No. 1 seed playing your typical lucky Wild Card team.
The Seahawks are the hottest team in the NFC, and have to be considered a favorite to get to New Orleans at this point.
X-Factor to Watch for the Seahawks: QB Russell Wilson
Despite being sacked five times against Washington, Wilson was unfazed, and he kept making plays with his feet and his arm amidst shoddy pass protection. Jim Haslett was bringing pressure to the rookie all game long, and Wilson rose to the challenge.
Another turnover-free performance by Wilson shows how beyond his years he is in terms of maturity, decision-making and general football IQ.
Wilson had seven carries for 68 yards in addition to throwing for 187 yards and a touchdown on an efficient 15-for-26. He got them off the mat after a 14-0 deficit, and there isn't much more that a team could ask for from its first-year, third-round quarterback.
The biggest problem that Wilson presents the Falcons' bend-but-don't-break defense is obviously his mobility, but he also has a knack for getting it done in the red zone. He has yet to throw an interception in his young career inside the 20, and Atlanta has counted on stuffing opponents inside the scoring zone all year long.
Between the incredibly punishing running of Marshawn Lynch and all the problems that Wilson presents in terms of his efficient throwing and dangerous running in that area, the Falcons will have their hands full.
X-Factor to Watch for the Falcons: RB Michael Turner
The biggest difference in this Atlanta team than in recent years is Turner's production, which has been uncharacteristically lackluster. Having reached the daunting milestone of age 30—when many running backs begin to decline—Turner averaged a career-low 3.7 yards per carry in 2012.
Jacquizz Rodgers has brought an added element to the Falcons' passing game that Turner has never been able to provide, but Turner is the traditional workhorse back.
Due to Turner's dip, the Falcons finished the year with the 27th-ranked rushing attack. So if the passing game isn't clicking early on—which is certainly possible against Seattle's secondary—the Falcons could be in trouble.
If the opposite happens, and the bye week gives Turner some fresher legs, Atlanta would be extremely tough to beat at home with an establishing running game to give the offense much needed balance.
Key Matchup: Falcons WRs vs. Seahawks Corners
If this isn't the best wide receiver-cornerback matchup in recent memory, I don't know what is.
It's difficult to think of a better one-two pass-catching punch than White and Jones, but they'll face arguably the best corner tandem in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Both are over 6'3" and play aggressive, man-to-man coverage.
Browner showed some rust against Washington coming off a four-game PED suspension, but settled in and looked solid after the Redskins' red-hot start.
Both White and Jones went well over 1,000 yards receiving, and it will be interesting to see how Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley chooses to match up with them.
Making matters more difficult is the presence of Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas, who will provide outstanding help over the top if Jones and White try to beat the gambling Seahawks corners on double-moves.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, Falcons 24
Unfortunately for the Atlanta faithful, this has all the makings of being another one-hit wonder. As in, everyone with any stake in the Falcons will be wondering why the team can't get past the first round.
The Seahawks are simply a buzzsaw right now, and are definitely the better team at the moment. Their offense is so much better balanced and could not be stopped despite the best efforts of the Redskins in the Wild Card Round.
Atlanta finished the regular season ranked 23rd against the pass and 21st against the run. That is something the Falcons won't be able to overcome—along with weak 2012 competition—even in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome.