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NFL Preview - Atlanta (11-2) at Seattle (6-7)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - In a world of self-proclaimed football geniuses, precious few saw this coming.
Just three years ago this month -- with their franchise quarterback in prison and their mercenary head coach bolting back to the college ranks -- the Atlanta Falcons were on no one's prospective list of would-be NFL superpowers for the 2010 season.
Which makes it all the more satisfying this week for owner Arthur Blank, whose team can clinch a playoff spot and cement its position as NFC's team to beat in the upcoming conference tournament with a victory this Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field.
"It's important to just stay focused and maintain a sense of humility," Blank said. "It's interesting. It's one of the things that comes with a little maturity as an owner. You don't let the highs get too high, and you don't let the lows get too low."
Since Michael Vick was lost to dog-fighting charges and then-head coach Bobby Petrino vacated his office for the University of Arkansas amid a collapse to a 4-12 season, the Falcons have turned things around in record time.
They drafted quarterback Matt Ryan and made the playoffs with an 11-5 record in 2008, picked up nine more wins while just missing the postseason in 2009 and have already locked in a third straight winning campaign in 2010, one which can be prolonged with a playoff berth should they win or tie at Seattle.
If it loses, Atlanta will still earn a postseason spot if the New York Giants lose or tie against Philadelphia, the Chicago Bears lose or tie at Minnesota or the Green Bay Packers lose or tie at New England this week. Next Sunday, it's an NFC South showdown with defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans for the Falcons.
"In these last three years, I've finally gotten the pieces together," Blank said. "How far we'll go this year remains to be seen, but I think we have the pieces and parts together so that looking forward for the next three, four, five, six years, this team will become what I call an important team in the National Football League."
For the host Seahawks, meanwhile, mediocrity could be its own reward.
Seattle limps into Week 15 with a non-imposing 6-7 record, but nonetheless controls its destiny with a chance to reach the playoffs as the best team in a historically average NFC West.
Head coach Pete Carroll's team actually shares the West lead with St. Louis, but can guarantee the title with defeats of Atlanta, Tampa Bay and the Rams in its final three games of the regular season.
Ominously, the Seahawks were beaten by a 40-21 score in last week's visit to the division's third-place team, San Francisco, which lurks 1 1/2 games behind the leaders at 5-9 following Thursday's loss at San Diego. Seattle has given up 30 or more points in six of its seven losses, including over 40 in three of the past four defeats.
"Some games our numbers are horrible and some games our numbers are pretty darn good," Carroll said. "That inconsistency has left us so that statistics aren't very important this year."
These teams will be facing one another for the first time since the 2007 regular-season finale, won by the Falcons in a 44-41 shootout at the Georgia Dome. The victory was only Atlanta's third in 11 all-time meetings with the Seahawks and snapped a four-game losing streak in the series that included setbacks at Qwest Field in 2004 and 2005. The Falcons haven't won in Seattle since a 30-26 triumph at the Kingdome back in 1997.
Carroll lost his only career encounter with Atlanta, a 41-10 defeat in 1998 while then guiding the New England Patriots. The Falcons' Mike Smith will be opposing both Carroll and Seattle for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
The Falcons have earned their wings on offense with top-tier rankings in scoring (25.8 points per game, 5th overall), total yardage (355.8 ypg, 9th) and rushing yardage (124.5 ypg, 8th). Atlanta's passing attack is only slightly less elite, ranking 13th of 32 teams with a weekly clip of 231.2 yards per game. Seattle has had trouble stopping its foes in all aspects, allowing 25.3 points per game to place 24th in the league. Its total yardage rate of 385.2 yards per game allowed is 31st among 32 teams, while opposing passers have gone for 266.0 yards per week (30th overall) and runners have accounted for 119.2 yards per game (20th).
Ryan has won eight straight regular-season games in December and January, and in the 15 career games in which he's posted a 100 or better passer rating, the Falcons are 15-0. In the backfield, running back Michael Turner rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns in last week's 31-10 win at Carolina, giving him four games with three or more touchdowns in his days with the Falcons -- the most in team history. Turner has scored 10 rushing touchdowns in his last seven games and aims for a fifth straight contest with at least one. Since 2008, he's scored 38 times, the second-best total in the league. On the outside, receiver Roddy White leads the league with a career-high 99 receptions and also tops all players with 1,219 receiving yards. He is the first Atlanta player with three 1,200-yard seasons and scored a touchdown in the Falcons' last meeting with Seattle. Meanwhile, tight end Tony Gonzalez had six catches for 116 yards in his last game against the Seahawks, while then a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
For the Seahawks, cornerback Marcus Trufant had a 31-yard interception return in a January 2005 meeting with the Falcons. Rookie safety Earl Thomas leads all NFC first-year players with five interceptions and is tied with Michael Boulware for the most by a rookie in Seattle history. Up front, end Chris Clemons has 9 1/2 sacks in his past 11 games and fellow end Raheem Brock had a sack in his last game against Atlanta, while then with the Colts in 2007.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle has done little to draw notice on offense in 2010, rating 21st in the league in scoring (20.1 ppg), 27th in total yardage (309.5 ypg) and 31st in rushing yardage (84.8 ypg). The Seahawks are 16th in the league in passing yards with a weekly rate of 224.8 per game. The Falcons, meanwhile, have approached overall respectability on defense in allowing a stingy 18.7 points per game (7th in the league). Their other numbers are slightly less superlative, placing them 17th in total yardage allowed (340.5 ypg), 24th in pass defense (233.2 ypg) and 13th in rush defense (107.2 ypg).
Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is 3-1 lifetime against Atlanta and has completed 78-of-114 passes for 917 yards and six touchdowns for a 106.5 rating. He's 94 yards shy of a seventh career 3,000-yard season, the most in team history. Behind him, running back Marshawn Lynch had seven catches last week, the second-most of his brief career. Fellow back Justin Forsett needs 26 rush yards to reach 500 for the second consecutive season. Return man Leon Washington had a 92-yard kick return touchdown last week and leads the league with a franchise-record three scores in that department. Among the pass- catchers, wide receiver Ben Obomanu is averaging 19.5 yards per catch on 22 receptions and Mike Williams had six catches for 84 yards in his only career meeting with the Falcons, while with Detroit in 2005. Williams has three games with 10 or more receptions in 2010, becoming the first Seahawk to do so.
Atlanta veteran defensive end John Abraham, a first-round draft choice of the Jets in 2000, had two sacks and a forced fumble in his last game against Seattle and has nine sacks in his past eight games overall. His 100 1/2 sacks since 2000 are second-most in the NFL over that time. Linebacker Mike Peterson registered an interception and a forced fumble in last week's win over the Panthers, while fellow linebacker Stephen Nicolas had a sack in the Falcons' last meeting with Seattle. Up front, end Kroy Biermann tied a career-high with two sacks last week.
Atlanta presents a bevy of fantasy numbers-getters, especially against a porous Seahawks defense. Go with Ryan, Turner, White, Gonzalez and kicker Matt Bryant if ownership allows. For Seattle, facing Atlanta's middling pass defense makes Hasselbeck, Obomanu and Williams possibilities, but risky ones.
For those not sold on the Falcons' dominance in the NFC standings, here's another potential speed bump -- a pre-holiday trip to visit a subpar foe on the West Coast with a division-deciding home match with the defending Super Bowl champions just a week away. Still, based on what it's accomplished thus far in 2010, Atlanta deserves benefit of the doubt at least until it stubs its toe in a winnable game.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Seahawks 21
12/17 09:31:41 ET