The last time the Atlanta Falcons drew the Seattle Seahawks as an opponent, it was Week 6 of the regular season. The Falcons lost that game, 26-24, but neither of these teams looks the same today as they did then.
Since the Falcons rallied from a 17-3 halftime deficit in that game, Seattle has undergone a handful of changes. Some of those are relatively minor—the team shuffling the deck chairs along its Titanic-like offensive line—and others are truly major. We’ll look at the two most impactful personnel changes, as well as trend lines for the team.
Losing Earl Thomas
This one hurts a great deal. As my esteemed colleague Charles McDonald noted on Twitter, the Seahawks closed out the 2016 season like this:
how was seattle favored by 8 points in a playoff game after this is how they closed the season? pic.twitter.com/g46HO0vNk0— charles (@FourVerts) January 8, 2017
Yes, that is a combined 98 points allowed over four weeks against one legitimately good offense and three NFC West teams, with a 2-2 record over that span. The Seahawks barely beat the 49ers in Week 17, as you’ll note, and their inability to handle opposing passing games was a big reason for this.
It makes you appreciate Earl Thomas for what he is, which is a Hall of Fame-caliber safety whose excellence and versatility makes so many things possible. Without him to roam around the field, Seattle’s struggling to keep every option in check, and most teams the Seahawks have faced of late don’t even have the number of weapons Atlanta does.
Seattle can still pursue quarterbacks and they still have some exceptionally dangerous players—I’m looking at Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Bobby Wagner warily, as I always do—you can run on them if you have the horses, and you can certainly throw the ball. The Falcons have the best offense in the NFL, so that’s a bit problematic for Seattle.
Gaining Thomas Rawls
Rawls is a load. He finished up an injury-marred, mediocre 2016 regular season averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, but he’s playing one of the worst offensive lines in football and was rounding back into health. Versus a lousy Detroit run defense, he predictably had a nice game, though I didn’t see him rolling up quite so many yards.
Rawls is a matchup problem for a Falcons team that is only so-so against the runs, even if they’ve delivered some nice efforts in recent weeks. Seattle’s passing game has been pretty anemic—they were downright objectionable against Detroit for most of that last game, with Russell Wilson at 12/19 for 88 yards at one point—so they need to pound the ball in order to keep that offense moving. Rawls’ ability to break tackles will serve him well against a defense that still sometimes struggles to make them.
Seattle will have to be able to hurt the Falcons through the air for Rawls to be effective, but as Philadelphia showed us, you can beat Atlanta if you can run effectively and control the tempo of the game. That’s where Rawls becomes dangerous.
A burst of scoring
While the offense has its struggles, as noted, it’s true that Wilson has been putting up better numbers in recent weeks, and it’s also true that as Seattle has started to surrender more points, their offense is picking up the slack a bit. That’s a cautionary note for all of us.
In the first eight weeks of the season, Seattle scored 28 points just once. In the back half of the season, they’ve done so four times, and have been held under 20 points just twice over that span. None of that tells us whether the Seahawks can keep up with the Falcons in a shootout—I very much doubt they can—but they’re not as offensively inept as that brutal 6-6 tie with the Cardinals earlier this year might suggest, if that’s the game that sticks out to you.
The big win over the Lions might convince you that the Seahawks are back—I’m already seeing that story line all over the place today—but the reality is that Detroit has been a bottom quartile team in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rating most of the year, and they were easily the weakest team in the NFC field. The Falcons will be a much stiffer challenge, and I would argue they are the stronger team. Now they just need to prove it.