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NFL playoffs - Seattle @ Atlanta preview

January means the SuperBowl can't be far away. This weekend we'll have four different previews of the playoff games, providing many different angles for a bet or a trade. First off the rank is Ghislain Hofman, @gghofman, an astute NFL fan taking a close look at the Seahawks-Falcons game. You'll also find his material on the SBB site.

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Seattle @ Atlanta

It's the second week of post-season as the playoffs swing into gear. The prize to the winner will be a shot at the conference title with a view to making a Superbowl appearance. The Seahawks (11-5) come in off a good win over Redskins after going 14-0 down early on. The Falcons (13-3) look to keep their home dominance this season intact (only loss was meaningless final week game at home). The Georgia Dome has been a good home to them.

Russell Wilson now becomes the sole remaining rookie quarter back starter, a lot like Flacco when he came into the NFL, he has overcome the critics of his game and did not let his limitations due to his size causing issues passing from the pocket. Seattle went from home bullies to a side capable of putting up big scores on the road. Wilson has perfected the balance between maintaining the pass game and knowing when its time to run. Having an excellent runner in his back field has done no harm either creating their own duel running threat on a more limited scale.

On the Falcons side something interesting comes up from their last 2 years in the play offs, Two years ago, Atlanta owned the top seed in the NFC but lost home to eventual Super Bowl winners the Packers. Last year the Falcons made the play offs as a wild card, and were disposed of by the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Could this be three years in row if the Seahawks went on to win it, looking to improve on their last attempt a ugly loss to the Steelers. The first proper Superbowl I watched.

The Falcons started 8-0 flying out the traps with their solid defence and their exceptional passing game with the trio of White, Jones and Gonzalez giving defensive coordinators nightmares. The Falcons losses came to the Saints and Panthers, and their final game versus the Bucs when taking the foot off the pedal. Both losses came away from the Georgia Dome, however easing off in week 17 has cost teams before. The Seahawks themselves did not start too well going 4-4, losing on the road, but not letting up at home with its renowned 12th causing havoc for visiting sides. But since then the Seahawks went 7-1 and won its wildcard game scoring 33 points per game in that run, their loss came on its long trip to Miami just going down by field goal, hopefully the Seahawks will have stayed on east coast for the week to prepare for this. The Seahawks get on top of teams by limiting their run game and letting their run game run riot. Falcons have struggled at times with their run which has pressured their passing game. While Seattle has outscored its opponents 217-74 over the last six games.

The Seahawks defence will play a key part in deciding this game. It is excellent stopping the run, an area Falcons have struggled to establish for most of the season with Turner. They also have cornerbacks and safeties good enough to limit the big play ability of both White and Jones. Ryan does make mistakes and this defence could bring those mistakes out. The pressure of a possible 5th play off loss in a row is surely on his shoulders as he has been part of three of that run. White and Jones combined for 171 catches with 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns while Gonzalez is coming off the most productive of his four regular seasons in Atlanta with 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight TDs. All this helped form the 6th ranked passing game in the NFL. As mentioned the Falcons’ ground game has not been up to par with the passing game. Atlanta averaged just 87.3 yards per game rushing this season. Turner averaged a lowly 3.6 yards per carry on 222 carries this year. On the defensive side Atlanta ranked in the bottom half of the league stopping the pass, giving up passing yards per game (242.4) and rushing yards per game (123.2).

The Seahawks try to join the 1989 Los Angeles Rams as the only West Coast team to win back-to-back playoff games on the East Coast, interesting as I pointed out the trip can be a challenge to West Coast teams. The Seahawks' good form has come behind their excellent run game. Lynch has averaged 116.8 and 6.9 per carry while topping 100 yards in each of the last five games. The Seahawks averaged 161.2 yards per game on the ground this year, the 3rd best in the NFL.

Wilson balances that with his quarterback rating of 100 the fourth best in the league. But look at his form at latter end and it is scary the improvement he has shown. Wilson threw 17 TDs and just two INTs over his final nine games, and his 116.9 passer rating since November is the best in the league. Its defence strong against the pass and rush may be affected by its loss of Sherman who has proven useful putting pressure on quarterbacks. They also must be weary of screen passes and tight end and running backs down field.

Seattle last week lost sack leader Chris Clemons for the rest of this season to a knee injury, a huge loss to the team. Seahawks have also made a change at kicker, where veteran Ryan Longwell is brought in to kick.. Lynch seems to be carrying a knock as Turbin took more carries but he will be good to go come gameday. Atlanta is healthy in most spots except the secondary,saw safety Mitchell will return to practice after sitting out on Wednesday. Mitchell has been dealing with a calf issue. Cornerback Owens did not practice as he recovers from a hamstring injury.

The Falcons had one of easier schedules this season which may mislead as to how they did so well their division had issues with all three of its rivals having different reasons for their struggles yet they still only went 3-3 in division play. The 49ers presented the Seahawks a great challenge and they shared the spoils. The fight back shown by the Seahawks when they started slow was good, teams who play better in second half tend to do a lot better in the post season. A better start this time round should see them right in with a chance of spoiling with Ryan's record 33-7 at home when starting. These teams meet last season with Falcons coming away from Seattle the victor, but under Wilson the Seahawks look much more of a complete a side.

If the Falcons win, they’ll play host to either the 49ers or Packers in the NFC title game. If the Seahawks pull off the upset, they’ll head either to Green Bay or San Francisco and so will leave the east coast. The Seahawks as always under Carroll will likely have the usual ace up the sleeve in its game plan something often seen this season in latter half of its games.

All in all this is a game of two birds, the Falcon or the Seahawks and it should leave up to its billing as the game of the weekend. These two sides match up well which makes for some exciting battles.

Verdict:
Match odds: Seahawks 13/10 Falcons 20/27 Spread -2.5 Points Total 46pts
The game is for the taking by either side here, but the better running game of the Seahawks could prove a difference maker, and a more reliable defence compared to a Falcons' secondary feeling the pinch which Wilson can expose with a choice of receivers they use in different schemes. Expecting another big night from Lynch leading his team to a tight win by just a single score.

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