A Great NFL Playoff Debate: Seahawks or Falcons?

The Atlanta Falcons host the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC divisional round on Saturday. Kid Reporters Alan Cole, who lives in Atlanta, and Hayden Goldberg, who lives in Seattle, had a spirited conversation about who will prevail.

Why will the Seahawks win?

Hayden: The Seahawks will win for a few reasons. One, they are better on the road. Not in terms of record (which is 7–1 at home, 3-4-1 on the road), but their pass defense was statistically better.

On the road, their opponents completed fewer passes (on more attempts), picked up fewer yards (total and per attempt), threw fewer touchdowns and more interceptions, and picked up fewer first downs (at a lower rate). Even though Seattle went multiple games without recording a sack, opposing quarterbacks playing at home were sacked more times.

Also, Seattle has one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Legion of Boom terrifies opponents, and while it is not what it once was, it is still the top secondary in the NFL.

The Seahawks also have one of the best linebacker corps in the NFL, including 2016 tackles leader Bobby Wagner.

The final reason why Seattle will win is the same X-Factor I mentioned in a previous story: Jimmy Graham. Even though the Falcons limited Graham to 89 yards in the game they played in Week 6 (which I attended), Graham has not only gotten healthier, he has also become a bigger part of Seattle’s offense and has gained trust with QB Russell Wilson.

Alan: The Legion of Boom does terrify a lot of quarterbacks, but Matt Ryan isn’t one of those quarterbacks. Ryan was second in the league in yards and touchdowns, first in yards per pass attempt, and first among qualified QBs in quarterback rating. He should win MVP this year and has already shredded Seattle once this season.

Ryan threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns against a defense that still had safety Earl Thomas in the first meeting. Thomas is now injured. I think Atlanta’s passing offense is due for an enormous game.

Graham concerns me a little bit because I know what he can do against the Falcons. He was very good in the first meeting, and I have seen the sight of him scoring against Atlanta as a New Orleans Saint too many times.

But Atlanta’s secondary has significantly improved since the first game against Seattle. The Seahawks gave up at least 250 passing yards in six of their first seven games this season. In the other nine games, however, opposing quarterbacks only hit the 250 threshold four times. In fact, Atlanta hasn’t allowed an opposing QB to go over 300 since Week 9. The pass defense is getting better, and Graham will have to deal with this improving unit.

Hayden: I see that you have completely passed on refuting my assessment of Seattle’s defense. Does it scare you that much?

The last time the two teams played, Seattle had a BACKUP defensive lineman, Cassius Marsh, out on the field for the same amount of snaps as Atlanta’s best pass rusher, Vic Beasley (52%). All of the Seahawks’ starters played more than that. Defensive end Michael Bennett played 64% of the snaps and players such as Thomas played 100%. Atlanta’s top pass rusher only played 52% of the time. How can you expect to generate a pass rush, if a) you only have one guy, and b) he is on the field for barely half the snaps?

Alan: I don’t think the Falcons are scared of Seattle’s—or anybody’s—defense, as long as Ryan is on the field and at his best.

Bennett only played 64% of the snaps in the first game, but he had three solo tackles and zero sacks. He wasn’t producing on the field, and I think Atlanta’s left tackle, Jake Matthews, can effectively take him out of the game again.

You make a very good point about Thomas playing the whole game. He is so important to Seattle’s defense that the team couldn’t take him out for even a single play. I think his injury is the game-changing factor that swings this game in Atlanta’s favor.

Why will the Falcons win?

Alan: In Week 6, Atlanta could have won in Seattle. The Seahawks came away with a 26–24 win, but the Falcons outplayed them for most of the second half. Atlanta outscored Seattle 21–9 in the second half and outgained the Seahawks 275–196. Even though the Falcons lost, the way they played bodes well for them this time.

Earl Thomas was the glue that held the Seattle defense together. The Seahawks gave up 16.4 points per game with him and 22.4 without him. Seattle did not give up 30 points in a game once in the 11 games he was healthy. In just five games without him, the Seahawks yielded more than 30 points twice.

Hayden: While what you say is accurate, you are diluting the truth about that first matchup. When they played earlier, the Falcons scored all 21 of their points in the third quarter. It was the first time that the Seahawks, under coach Pete Carroll, had ever given up 21 points in a single quarter. Furthermore, the Seahawks shut out the Falcons in the first quarter.

When the Seahawks were down by one, their defense, as usual, stepped up and made a play. Thomas picked off Ryan. As I mentioned, I was at the game, and boy, did it get crazy in there!

Alan: It is true that Atlanta scored those points in the third quarter, but that’s what makes it even more impressive. The Falcons scored three touchdowns in 12 minutes against the Legion of Boom, with Thomas playing. He had the key interception in the fourth quarter, but he won’t be able to do that this time.

For the most part, Atlanta kept Seattle’s running game under wraps in the first meeting. The Seahawks averaged just 2.7 yards a carry. The bulk of Seattle’s offense in the 26–6 wild card  win over Detroit came through the running game, as offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called 38 rushes to 30 passes. Thomas Rawls finished with 161 rushing yards and one touchdown on 27 carries.

The Falcons stopped Seattle’s running game the first time they played, and I think they will again.

The Seahawks have given up the sixth-most sacks and fourth-most quarterback hits. The Falcons have the NFL sack leader, Vic Beasley, ready to do damage.

I think Atlanta’s defense is improving enough to make some big plays in this game too.

Hayden: I am the first one to admit that the Seahawks’ run game has been inconsistent and the offensive line is weak.

But both of these things are improving. Rawls is healthy, and Tom Cable’s offensive line looks like it will be able to protect QB Russell Wilson.

Plus, if Atlanta only has one pass rusher, the solution for the Seattle line is simple: double team.

But the Seahawks have many pass rushers. Cliff Avril and Frank Clark combined for 21.5 sacks. Bennett has five and would have more if he hadn’t missed five games with a knee injury.

Seattle is built to stop the run.

Atlanta may be able to scrounge up a few yards when Kam Chancellor isn’t down in the box, but once he is, the Falcons won’t be able to get anything.

Finally, you’ve been talking a lot about defense. You never mention the offense, which means you must think that Sherman will again cover and dominate receiver Julio Jones, which is what everyone expects.

Note from the Authors: We had a great time collaborating, working on, and, most importantly, arguing while we wrote this article. May the best team win!

Photographs by (from top) Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images; Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

 

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