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Depending on the outcomes of this weekend's Wildcard Round, the Falcons could face the Redskins, the Seahawks or the Vikings.
There are pros and cons to a first round playoff bye for the Falcons. On one hand, it gives key players like John Abraham, William Moore and Dunta Robinson a week to get healthy. On the other hand, we all probably still have nightmares about coming out of a first round bye in 2010 to experience abject humiliation at the hands of the Green Bay Packers. And, speaking of the Packers, they looked pretty rusty after their first round bye last season, also.
I expect the Redskins and the Packers to win their respective NFC Wildcard games this weekend. If my predictions are correct, the Redskins will travel to Atlanta next week for the divisional round. The Falcons have some familiarity with the Redskins, having played them earlier this season, which would streamline their preparation.
Robert Griffin, III has had an exceptional rookie year. Washington's offense is fourth in the league in points scored per game, with 27.2, and fifth in the league in total offensive yards with 383.2. Griffin has thrown for 3,200 yards this season, with a completion rate of 65.6%, and 20 touchdowns compared to five interceptions. He also has 815 rushing yards on 120 attempts. People discuss him as a mobile quarterback, which he is, but he's effective passing or running the ball.
Speaking of running the ball, the Redskins lead the league in this category. Alfred Morris has also had an exceptional rookie season, with 1,613 yards rushing and 13 rushing touchdowns this year. Run defense has been a weakness for the Falcons all season. When these teams met before, Atlanta's defense allowed Morris 115 rushing yards, but no touchdowns.
The Redskins have a stellar turnover ratio at +17. Their defense has been opportunistic this season, with 21 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries, statistically similar to Atlanta's 20 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries.
There are some Redskins weaknesses that can make a difference for the Falcons if these teams meet again. While the Falcons are the least-penalized team in the NFL, averaging 3.4 penalties per game, the Redskins are 29th in the league and averaging 7.2 penalties per game.
Washington's defense, particularly their secondary, has struggled this season. They allow, on average, 377.7 total yards per game. They are tough against the run, fifth in the league, and allowing 95.8 yards per game, but they are not as effective against the pass. With Matt Ryan under center, and a host of receiving threats in Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and more, there's no reason Atlanta can't exploit Washington's secondary.
If Seattle pulls out the win in Washington, and the Packers beat the Vikings in Green Bay, then the Falcons will be welcoming Russell Wilson and company to the Georgia Dome. The Seahawks are a very good team, and one can make a compelling case for Seattle as the most complete team in the NFC this season.
Seattle is a very good team--arguably the most complete team in the NFC this season. The Seahawks and the Redskins have two key similarities: mobile quarterbacks who happen to be rookies, and very effective running backs.
Russell Wilson is not quite as mobile as RGIII, with 489 rushing yards on 94 carries. He has passed for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions this season. If you'd like an example of why it's important to contain Marshawn Lynch, take a look at this rushing touchdown against the Saints in the 2010 playoffs. It's funny when it happens to New Orleans, but the Falcons will have to tighten up their run defense if Marshawn comes to town.
Seattle's defense is serious. They are ranked fourth in the league overall, allowing 306.2 total yards per game, and just 15.3 points per game. They rank in the top ten against the pass and the run. Their cornerbacks physically match up very well with Roddy White and Julio Jones. Seattle's defense will present a real challenge for Atlanta's high-powered offense.
One glaring weakness for Seattle--a team that does not have many weaknesses, really--is their record on the road. If they do beat Washington, they're on the road for a second week in a row when they come to the Georgia Dome. Their wins on the road came against Carolina, Chicago and Buffalo, and only the win against the Bills was convincing. The Seahawks have gotten better as the season has progressed and Russell Wilson has settled into the NFL, but Atlanta's disruptive defense can take advantage of the rookie in the Georgia Dome.
Even though I seriously doubt Green Bay loses two weeks in a row to Minnesota, especially at Lambeau Field, my Packers fan husband--a dedicated pessimist--insists they will lose. So, in the event that they he's right, let's take a quick look at the Vikings as well.
The Vikings have this one guy, a running back, maybe you've heard of him. His name is Adrian Peterson, and about a year ago, he had surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL. This season, he finished with 2,097 yards, nine yards shy of a regular season record, and 12 touchdowns. He's kind of good. And kind of a potential nightmare for the Falcons run defense.
Minnesota's defense has the ability to really put pressure on Matt Ryan. They have 44 sacks on the season, plus 62 quarterback hits and 181 hurries.
Minnesota has weaknesses, though. The Falcons can take advantage of Christian Ponder if they limit Peterson. Ponder has a negative Pro Football Focus grade on plays with no pressure. With any kind of pressure, his effectiveness, such as it is, dips. Ponder has taken 32 sacks this season, and has thrown for 18 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions. Minnesota also has a turnover ratio of -1. For the Falcons, who don't turn the ball over a lot, but have an opportunistic defense, forcing turnovers while not committing any could be a key to success.
The most important thing for the Falcons is to get healthy over this bye week. The Falcons are also taking a different approach to preparing this postseason than they took in 2010, which is smart. The team is also very focused. As much as we, as fans, can't stand the thought of another early exit from the playoffs, comments from coaches and players illustrate that they have every intention of making a run this postseason. Mike Smith is doing everything he can to ensure that, whoever the Falcons play, they will be prepared to come out, start fast, and play fundamentally sound football next Sunday. If they do, they can beat any one of these teams.
Who do you want to see the Falcons play next week? How do you think the Falcons match up with these potential opponents?