The "experts," and I use the term loosely, are fairly split on their expectations for Atlanta's playoff game against the Seahawks on Sunday. Let's take a look, unit by unit and position by position, to determine which team really has the advantage on Sunday.
NFL AM made the statement earlier this week that Russell Wilson has outplayed Matt Ryan in November and December, and if you manipulate the stats, I suppose you can make that case based on interceptions, but it's a stretch. In those two months alone, Matt Ryan threw for 2,701 total yards, averaged a 68.5 completion rate, threw 15 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and took 13 sacks. Remember that five of those interceptions came in a fluky, uncharacteristic game against the Cardinals.
Wilson, on the other hand, threw for 1,652 total yards, with a 67.2% completion rate, 16 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and took 19 sacks. Yes, Wilson has very few interceptions, on very few attempts, compared to Ryan. He's thrown one more touchdown than Matt Ryan in that timeframe--not exactly blowing Ryan out of the water. Given Matt Ryan's success throwing the ball, with 167 more attempts, 117 more completions, and 1,049 more passing yards than Wilson in November and December, it's not very easy to make an accurate comparison.
Regardless of what guys like Adam Schein, who is grasping at anything to talk about since the Jets are extremely irrelevant this postseason, say about Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson, Ryan has the advantage, statistically, and in maturity and experience. This is not a knock on Wilson, who is a very good quarterback and has had an exceptional rookie season. It's easy to forget he's a rookie, because of his poise and maturity. But that's not enough to give him the edge over Matt Ryan in the Georgia Dome. Advantage: Falcons.
There's no reason to sugarcoat this; Marshawn Lynch is great, and Atlanta's run defense has been spotty. This is a rush-heavy offense, with run plays called on 49.8% of offensive snaps, and it has been very successful. Lynch has 1,590 yards on the season on 315 attempts, and 11 touchdowns. Lynch has the potential to be dangerous against Atlanta's run defense, ranked 21st in the league in the regular season, allowing an average of 123.2 rushing yards per game. One variable: Lynch is listed on the injury report with a foot injury, and did not practice on Wednesday, which isn't unusual, or on Thursday, which is unusual.
Atlanta's rushing attack has been inconsistent. There have been flashes of effectiveness in between long stretches of ineffectiveness. Michael Turner had 800 yards on 222 carries this season, Jacquizz Rodgers had 362 yards on 94 carries, and Jason Snelling had 63 yards on 18 carries. A ground game would help keep pressure off of Matt Ryan and allow the passing game to flourish, and the Falcons don't need to have 200 yards on the ground to be successful, they just need to do enough to keep Seattle's defense honest.
I don't like it, but I have to acknowledge the very real threat Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson present to the Falcons run defense. Advantage: Seahawks.
Sidney Rice, at 6'4" and 202 pounds, is Seattle's most physically threatening receiver, but his best season in the NFL was in 2009, when Brett Favre was throwing him the ball in Minnesota. This season, he's managed 748 receiving yards on 80 targets. Golden Tate, best known for the "Fail Mary" replacement ref debacle against Green Bay this season, has 688 yards on 68 targets. Their slot guy, Doug Baldwin, has 366 yards and 3 touchdowns this regular season. Tight end Zach Miller has 396 yards and 3 touchdowns on 38 receptions.
Statistically, it's not even a comparison. Roddy White has 1,351 yards and 7 touchdowns on 92 targets, Julio Jones has 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns on 79 targets, and Harry Douglas has 395 yards and 1 touchdown on 38 targets. And it's just not these three who have contributed to the offensive success this season. Tony Gonzalez, who is only the greatest tight end of all time, has 930 yards and 8 touchdowns on 93 receptions, Jacquizz Rodgers has 402 receiving yards, Jason Snelling has 203 receiving yards, and Michael Turner, not known for his receiving prowess, has 128 receiving yards. About 65% of Atlanta's offensive snaps are passing plays, and the Falcons have the talent to spread the ball around and get everyone involved, which can make life very difficult for Seattle on Sunday. Advantage: Falcons.
There aren't really stats available for offensive linemen, but Pro Football Focus premium stats do assign grades at that position. According to those measurements, the Seahawks have allowed 24 sacks on Russell Wilson, 22 hits, and 122 hurries. Eight sacks, three hits, and 10 hurries are assigned to Russell Wilson himself--not surprising, as a quarterback running a read option tends to hold the ball longer. The Seahawks have a positive grade of 16.7 for pass blocking, a positive grade of 5 for screen blocking, and a positive grade of 6.4 for run blocking.
The Falcons, on the other hand, have allowed 26 sacks, 42 hits and 122 hurries on Matt Ryan. They have a positive grade of 16.6 for pass blocking, a positive grade of 15 for screen blocking, and a negative grade of -27.3 for run blocking.
Chris Clemons being out may take some pressure off of Atlanta's offensive line on Sunday, although it's likely that rookie DE Bruce Irvin will start in his place, and he has been pretty productive this season. Because of the run blocking differential, I give the advantage to Seattle in this one.
Pro Football Focus gives Seattle's special teams at 52.5, and Atlanta's at 52.0. Matt Bryant has made 33 of 38 field goals attempted this season, and Seattle's Steven Houschka has made 24 of 27 field goals attempted this season. I'm taking the guy who has no qualms about telling a defensive lineman to "have fun watching us in January." Advantage, Matt Bryant, and the Falcons.
Seattle is credited with 36 sacks on the season by NFL.com, but 11.5 of those are credited to Chris Clemons, who is out with a torn ACL suffered on the abysmal turf at FedEx Field against the Redskins on Sunday. Bruce Irvin, who will likely start in Clemons' place, is credited with 11 sacks on the season by Pro Football Focus. Seattle's pass rush also has 53 hits and 146 hurries.
Seattle's defense is ranked 10th against the run, allowing an average of 103.1 yards per game. Their pass defense is ranked 6th, allowing an average of 203.1 yards per game. They allow the fewest points per game in the league, with 15.3 on average. The Seahawks have managed 18 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries.
The Falcons have 29 sacks, according to NFL.com, plus 44 hits and 158 hurries on quarterbacks. The Falcons pass defense is ranked 23rd for yards allowed, with 242.2 yards per game, and 21st against the run, with 123.2 yards allowed per game. The Falcons are 5th in the league with 18.7 points allowed per game, on average. Atlanta's defense has 20 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. Both teams are tied with a +13 turnover ratio.
Because Atlanta's receivers are notoriously difficult to cover, and Chris Clemons is out, and the Falcons are playing at home, in front of a crowd Russell Wilson referred to as "hostile," I'm giving the defensive advantage to Atlanta.
When you consider Matt Ryan and Mike Smith's record at home, and the fact that the Seahawks will have taken three cross-country flights in seven days, and a 10:00 a.m. PST start time for the game, plus experience--the Seahawks have the second-youngest roster in the NFL, and the Falcons have the fifth-oldest roster--the advantage, in my openly-biased opinion, lies with the Falcons.
What are you expecting from Sunday's game? Do you think the Falcons have the advantage over Seattle?