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Originally published January 12, 2013 at 8:18 PM | Page modified January 13, 2013 at 1:51 PM

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Seahawks, Falcons eye elite level

This game is the kind of moment that separates a successful season from a truly special one, each team seeking that breakthrough moment on the path toward a title.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Today

Seahawks @ Atlanta, 10 a.m., Ch. 13

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This game is the difference between good and great.

The kind of moment that separates a successful season from a truly special one as two teams arrive at the Georgia Dome for Sunday's Divisional playoff game, each one seeking that breakthrough moment on the path toward a title.

For all the progress Seattle has made this season, this is the point when its past three playoff appearances have ended, and for all the regular-season victories Atlanta has racked up in coach Mike Smith's five seasons, the Falcons have yet to validate those results with a playoff win.

This game is more than just a clash of styles between two fundamentally different offenses, but a showdown between two teams who believe they're ready to take that next step from being a contender to becoming a champion.

"It's an opportunity to be great," Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said. "To just focus on what we have in front of us and that is playing the Atlanta Falcons."

The Falcons were 13-3 this season, earning the conference's top seed in the playoffs and the first-round bye that comes with it. It was the Falcons' fifth straight winning season, and it marked the first time ever the franchise has reached the postseason in three successive seasons. All that success comes with an asterisk, though.

*They have not won in the playoffs. Not since the 2004 season when Jim Mora was head coach.

That fact hangs — not subtly — over Atlanta.

"It's something that we're aware of," Smith said. "And I think you learn from all of your experiences whether they're positive or negative."

The Seahawks have had a winning record only once in the past five seasons, but they've had two playoff victories, including last Sunday's win in Washington when Seattle won its first road playoff game since 1983.

That's just one reason the Seahawks can enter this game feeling they're the more tested of the two teams. For all the Falcons' regular-season victories in 2012, only two of those wins came against teams that reached the playoffs while the Seahawks beat four teams that reached the postseason.

There were 13 teams that finished with 10 or more victories in the NFL this season, and Atlanta beat two: Denver and Washington and both those games were in the first half of the schedule. Seattle beat six of those 13 teams that won 10 games or more, including last week's playoff game in Washington.

"We've earned a different right to have confidence in our play," Pete Carroll said. "The background of all these games in the entire second half of the season and on the road and all that stuff."

Seattle has come a long way from the 7-9 team in 2010 that won a division title in Carroll's first year when the NFC West was a natural disaster. The Seahawks shocked the world by upsetting New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs that season only to exit in the second round, which has become a bit of a habit for this franchise.

This is Seattle's seventh playoff appearance since the NFL realigned in 2002. Only three teams have made the postseason more often in that time: New England, Indianapolis and Green Bay, who've each won a Super Bowl in that time and reached the conference championship game at least twice.

The Seahawks have reached the conference championship game only twice in franchise history, the first being in the 1983 season and then during the run to the Super Bowl under Mike Holmgren in 2005.

The Seahawks are one of the league's youngest teams, they allowed the fewest points in the league and perhaps most important they have found the quarterback to build around in Wilson.

The question is no longer about Seattle's future, though. It's what Seattle can do with the present opportunity, and the result of this game will determine whether the city spends the next week trying to remind itself how far the Seahawks have come or projecting how far they can still go.

"We're just trying to take the next step," Carroll said, "take the finish of last week and get back on the field and start playing again. We'll do that as long as they let us."

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @dannyoneil.

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