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January 12, 2013 at 6:30 AM

Keys to the game: Seahawks at Falcons

Keys to a Seahawks victory

Seahawks 1. Control the ball.
The Falcons like to push the pace on offense, a virtual fastbreak approach in which they sometimes scrap the huddle entirely. They have three different players who caught more than 70 passes this season and running back Jacquizz Rodgers has more catches (53) than anyone on Seattle’s roster. The best defense against that offense? Keep quarterback Matt Ryan on the sidelines by running the ball with impunity against an Atlanta defense that ranked No. 21 against the run during the regular season, second-worst among all playoff teams.

Seahawks 2. Make Matt Ryan hurry.
This might be a pipe dream. The Falcons allowed 28 sacks in the regular season, tied for seventh-fewest in the NFL. Not only that, but Seattle’s defense had only three sacks over the previous three games, and that was with defensive lineman Chris Clemons, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second half of last week’s game. Rookie Bruce Irvin will start the first game of his NFL career, but a Seattle defense not known for a preponderance of blitzes might need to get creative in its attempts to apply pressure.

Seahawks 3. Don’t get impatient.
Atlanta’s defense yields yardage more willingly than points, which can be mistakenly characterized as a “Bend but don’t break.” “Earn everything” would be more accurate as Atlanta seeks to keep opposing receivers in front of them, eschewing blitzes to make the opponent progress gradually in hopes it eventually makes a mistake. Russell Wilson made a few mistakes last week – uncharacteristic for him – as he was nearly picked off on one play and overthrew an open Doug Baldwin on another. Wilson can’t get antsy and force anything against the Falcons.

Keys to Atlanta victory

fal-mark-1-cl.gif 1. Option defense is not optional, but a necessity.
Here’s what is scary for the Falcons: In two games against Carolina, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw for 502 yards and four touchdowns, ran 18 times for 202 yards and two touchdowns – including a 72-yard scoring run. What’s not so scary? Washington’s Robert Griffin III threw for 91 yards, rushed for 7 and didn’t score at all. The Falcons’ ability to defend Seattle’s option offense will be significant factor in this game.

fal-mark-1-cl.gif 2. Come through on third down.
Third downs were when Atlanta’s offense was at its best, the Falcons converting 45.1 percent of those chances into first downs. Only New England was better. Third down was when Seattle was at its worst, the Seahawks allowing opponents to convert 38.4 percent of those opportunities to first downs, ranking No. 17 in the league. That’s a surprisingly mediocre ranking for a team that allowed the fewest points in the league, and it’s Seattle’s biggest cause for concern entering this game. If the Falcons consistently convert third downs like Detroit did against in Week 8 when the Lions were 12-of-16 on third down, the Seahawks are sunk.

fal-mark-1-cl.gif 3. Don’t be fazed by Seattle’s physical approach.
Washington spent a good chunk of last week’s game seeking to bait some of Seattle’s more volatile players into retaliations that would draw a flag. The Seahawks were penalized only four times in the game. The Falcons can’t get frustrated by the grabby play of Seattle’s cornerbacks nor the edgy play of the Seahawks’ offensive line. The Falcons were penalized a league-low 55 times this season, and it’s to Seattle’s advantage if it uglies up this game.

Matchup microscope
TE Tony Gonzalez vs. SS Kam Chancellor
Chancellor is a player known for the size of his hits more than the stickiness of his coverage and he’s going to be matched with one of the top receiving tight ends in NFL history. Gonzalez caught 93 passes this season at the ripe old age of 36, second-most for any tight end in the league. He scored eight touchdowns. But for all the quality tight ends Seattle faced this season – from Dallas’ Jason Witten to New England’s Rob Gronkowski to Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew – the Patriots’ Aaron Hernandez was the only opposing tight end to score against the Seahawks and none had more than 100 yards receiving in a game. The pressure will be on Chancellor to keep Gonzalez from being the difference in this game.

Series history
This is the third consecutive season the teams have met, and Russell Wilson will be the third different quarterback the Seahawks have started going from Matt Hasseleck in December 2010 to Tarvaris Jackson in October 2011 to Wilson. Atlanta has won the last three regular-season games in the series, the Falcons scoring 30 or more points in each of those games. The two teams have never met in the playoffs.

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