1 Control the ball. The Falcons like to push the pace on offense, a virtual fast-break approach in which they sometimes scrap the huddle...
Keys to a Seahawks victory
1 Control the ball. The Falcons like to push the pace on offense, a virtual fast-break approach in which they sometimes scrap the huddle entirely. They have three different players who caught more than 70 passes, 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 sideline by running the ball against an Atlanta defense that ranked No. 21 against the run during the regular season, second-worst among all playoff teams.
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 has 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.
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
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 and 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.
2 Come through on third down. Third downs are when Atlanta's offense is 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. If the Falcons consistently convert third downs like Detroit did against Seattle in Week 8 when the Lions were 12 of 16 on third down, the Seahawks are sunk.
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.
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.
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.