Not being overly negative here... I think we've had a fantastic season. I think we'll come back even stronger next year and if we avoid injuries, could well have a rematch against the Falcons only this time we have the home field advantage. The Seahawks are going in absolutely the right direction, I just think we'll come up short against a #1 seed, 13-3 team on the road. The reason...?
LACK OF PRESSURE ON MATT RYAN
I think we'll struggle, once again, to get pressure in base defense. I watched the Cardinals @ Falcons game and the one thing (only thing?) Arizona does well is pass rush. It amazes me that Ray Horton hasn't got the Cards' Head Coach gig simply to keep him as part of that franchise. They got at Ryan and forced mistakes. He's not too mobile, he likes to have time. Give him that time and he'll kill you - especially with the options he has at WR/TE. He threw FIVE interceptions against Arizona and scored no touchdowns. They scraped to victory 23-19 despite Arizona having 70 total passing yards in that game. The reason? Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush.
Unfortunately, we are nowhere near as effective rushing the passer. Our base defense generates almost no pressure at all and we don't blitz. Carroll and Bradley have barely blitzed all year and they aren't going to start now against a QB like Ryan. They'll be scared of getting burned - any coaching staff would have that fear blitzing Ryan with those receivers. I suspect it might be a case of 'which way are we least likely to get beat?' and they'll try and play bend but don't break. We've played some of the worst offensive lines in the NFL this year and dominated only once (vs Green Bay). Now we're going to try and dominate a decent enough line without our best pass rusher. That'll be very difficult.
Chris Clemons is a huge miss and although I like Bruce Irvin and believe he will grow into the NFL, I don't think is the game for him. Atlanta is really going to test his ability to defend the run early I fear, and if he struggles I think we'll see Scruggs playing more and more snaps as the game goes on. If we end up fielding a four man line of Bryant, Mebane, Branch and Scruggs more often than not - I don't like our chances of getting pressure on Ryan. Our best chance to do so might be to maybe lean to that side and put more pressure on Bryant to hold up his side of the bargain. We need to be in a position to keep Irvin on the field and he has to make the most of his chances.
I trust Russell Wilson and our offense to score points too and I don't think it's impossible for us to win a shoot-out. But that's the type of game I think it'll be, and it's not the type that suits us the best. Ryan is going to get time back there and however good Sherman/Browner and the other DB's are, they can't cover Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez forever while Ryan sits in a clean pocket. I expect all three of their key playmakers, plus Ryan, to have a big day.
When Atlanta's lost playoff games in the past - Ryan has been pressured. New York last year, he had no time. Green Bay before that, the same. Against us I'm worried that won't be the case. So it'll be up to our offense to answer every call. It'll be up to the defense to see if they can bend but not break (tough vs Gonzalez in the red zone). But ultimately I think there's going to come a time in the second half where they edge ahead and pull away - something like 34-20 in the end.
Maybe the pressure on Ryan/Smith takes its toll? I just think this Falcons team is too good to keep bottling it. 0-4 in the playoffs? That would be some accomplishment given how talented they are. They'll be right on this one and if we're going to beat them, we'll have to do it with equally brilliant offense. I'd love Wilson to do it but I'm not expecting even he to do that.
Hope I'm completely wrong. I will happily eat crow if I am. I won't boast if I'm right. I want us desperately to win this game. But our biggest off-season priority has to be finding a better pass rush in base defense. If we get that in 2014, we have a shot at going 13-3 ourselves.