After holding their breath for over a week, fans of the Atlanta Falcons can now breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks to head coach Mike Smith's Monday announcement that the defense will enter Sunday's game against the Seahawks near full strength.
It's been a while since Smith could make such a statement. Falcons' defenders have been beaten and battered much of the season. Most notably was the absence of safety William Moore who missed the final four games of the regular season. Moore returned to practice on Saturday.
The Falcons' injury situation took a self-inflicted wounding route in their final game against the Buccaneers. Cornerback Dunta Robinson sustained a concussion in the first quarter. And defensive end John Abraham sustained an ankle sprain in the fourth quarter after being landed on by teammate Peria Jerry.
Both injuries called into question Smith's decision to play starters in a meaningless game—questions that now seem unwarranted. Robinson cleared the league's concussion protocol last week. And Smith said on Monday that Abraham would return to practice on Wednesday.
The lone holdout is cornerback Christopher Owens who will not practice due to a hamstring injury.
Having Moore, Abraham and Robinson in the game will be key to Atlanta's ability to throttle Seattle's potent offensive attack. Seattle comes to Atlanta having won their last 8 of 9 games, led by the league's newest and most potent dual-threat quarterback in Russell Wilson.
While health questions have been answered for the Falcons, a few remain for the Seahawks. How much will the loss of defensive end Chris Clemons effect their pass rush? Clemons sustained a season-ending knee injury in Seattle's wild-card win over Washington on Sunday. Before being injured, Clemons had logged 11.5 sacks and provided pass rush support for a young secondary.
And what may be the Seahawk's biggest health question. How much will the cross-country round trips affect the team's stamina? In less than a week, Seattle will have flown from Seattle to Washington and back—and from Seattle to Atlanta. Most teams facing back-to-back games on the East Coast choose to stay and practice somewhere near their next opponent.
Sleeping in your own bed is usually a smart and refreshing choice. But when you're crossing the country more than Air Force One, it can be exhausting. It's exhausting enough for a healthy, but aging, Falcons defense to slow a young, but potent, Seahawks offense.