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Falcons trounce Seahawks, advance to NFC title game

Leading MVP candidate Matt Ryan riddled Seattle's secondary for 338 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Atlanta Falcons to a convincing 36-20 victory over the Seahawks in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Here's what we learned in Saturday's game:

  1. After both teams traded clinical opening-drive touchdowns that spilled over to the second quarter, a holding penalty on special teamer Kevin Pierre-Louis swung the game in Atlanta's favor. Devin Hester's 80-yard punt return would have set the Seahawks up at the seven-yard line with a chance to take a commanding 17-7 lead. Instead, Seattle lost 84 yards of field position, ultimately leading to a safety when defensive tackle Ben Garland fell on a tripped Russell Wilson in the end zone. The Falcons quickly answered with a field goal and a 99-yard touchdown drive to close out the half.

Coach Dan Quinn was vindicated in his decision to defer upon winning the coin toss, as Ryan led yet another lengthy touchdown drive to open the third quarter -- turning a 10-7 deficit into a 26-10 lead before Pete Carroll knew what hit him.

  1. Mistakes aside, Atlanta was the superior team, winning up front on both sides of the ball. MVP favorite Ryan directed touchdown drives of 99, 75, 75 and 54 yards, hitting eight different targets for a 125.7 passer rating against a Seahawks secondary that lost cornerback DeShawn Shead in addition to the absence of All Pro safety Earl Thomas. The Falcons now boast 11 scoring drives started inside their own 10-yard line, five more than any other team in the league this season. Ryan has orchestrated opening-drive touchdowns in seven consecutive games, the longest streak since the 1970 merger. With a dialed-in Kyle Shanahan calling the plays, Ryan distributing like an all-world point guard, Julio Jones leading the NFL's deepest receiving corps and the Devonta Freeman-Tevin Coleman tandem giving linebackers fits, the Falcons offense is the class of the playoff field.
  1. On the flip side, Atlanta's pass defense might just be the biggest postseason weakness -- pending the outcome of Brock Osweiler's offense in New England on Saturday night. Quinn's unit deserves credit for generating consistent heat and forcing turnovers, but that's par for the course against Wilson's offense that is too often stifled outside of Seattle. The Falcons' red-zone defense is the worst in the league, allowing a touchdown 73 percent of the time in the regular season. Every team remaining can throw on Atlanta's cornerbacks, as Wilson did in the first half of Saturday's tilt. This defense is built to play with a lead, so it's vital that Ryan stays white hot against the winner of the Cowboys-Packers clash.
  1. Seahawks first-round guard Germain Ifedi has been a liability at times this season, but his early game ankle injury was a significant factor in Atlanta's favor. Rookie backup Rees Odhiambo allowed a Brooks Reed sack on first down in the red zone to thwart one drive and stepped on Russell Wilson's foot to cause the safety. The offensive line was the primary culprit in Seattle's disappointing road performance all season. It's a unit in need of an overhaul this offseason.
  1. One position the Seahawks can afford to neglect in the next draft: wide receiver. Paul Richardson has exceeded expectations as Tyler Lockett's stand-in, providing a running loop of highlight-reel catches in the past two weeks. He was stellar again on Saturday, hauling in four passes for 83 yards on five targets. His only miss was a spectacular diving effort versus double coverage on a 58-yard bomb that was overturned on replay review. Once Lockett returns to full health, Wilson should have the best wide receiver corps of his career in 2017.
  1. Julio Jones won his battle with Richard Sherman in the first half, but suffered a foot injury late in the second quarter. He returned to convert a third down in the third quarter, only to spend the majority of the final frame on the sideline while the Falcons sat on a commanding lead. Quinn stated after the game that there is no real concern, as Jones could have returned if necessary.
  1. It's not often that Thomas Rawls is the third-best running back on the field. Freeman and Coleman demonstrated why Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright hailed them as the "best 1-2 running back combo" he has ever faced, combining for 204 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 32 touches. This has been the NFL's most productive complementary backfield tandem since the season opener.
  1. That dynamic Freeman-Coleman duo is illustrative of Atlanta's draft success since former Patriots and Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli joined close friend Thomas Dimitroff in the Falcons' war room. The last three draft classes have produced 13 regulars, including NFL sack leader Vic Beasley and the playmaking rookie defensive duo of Keanu Neal and Deion Jones. Seattle's last four draft classes, on the other hand, have been mostly barren as the organization continues to lean heavily on the stars that arrived prior to 2013.
  1. Kudos to freshly signed Devin Hester, who broke free for kickoff returns of 78 and 50 yards in addition to the nullified 80-yard punt-return spree. The most electrifying return ace of the 21st century -- and perhaps NFL history -- showed teams that he can still be a factor if he plans to play a 12th season in 2017.
  1. Commissioner Roger Goodell was on hand to say goodbye to the Georgia Dome. If the Packers upset the Cowboys, though, the Falcons will host one more game at the facility before moving into Mercedes-Benz Stadium next season.
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