By Harry Allison
Don’t look now, but the Atlanta Falcons are playing like the fave for next month’s Super Bowl.
“Seattle is physical. They’re very physical. But I think their speed is what makes it sometimes difficult to go against them,” Ryan told a small group of reporters at his locker after throwing for 338 yards and three touchdowns in the Falcons’ 36-20 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. “I thought for us today, our speed showed.”
The Falcons’ speed has shown up all year. They didn’t lead the NFL by far in scoring on the sheer wizardry of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose brilliance as a game-planner and play-caller shines through Ryan’s ability at age 31 to play his most efficient football.
What will concern the defensive coordinator for the team the Falcons face next week — the top-seeded Cowboys at Dallas, or the Packers here, depending who wins the other NFC semifinal today — is they are creating, finding and exploiting mismatches as well as anybody. Ryan attacks anywhere and everywhere and has a deep enough arsenal to do it.
“They just function really well,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “They mix really well. They caught the ball well. They did a nice job and got some guys open on us and it wasn’t a lot of down-the-field, big plays — it was a lot of catch-and-run stuff. Good design.”
You’re not just dealing with all-pro stalwart Julio Jones, who had six catches for 67 yards and a touchdown while being covered mostly by Seattle star Richard Sherman before aggravating a foot injury that Quinn said shouldn’t keep him out next week. (“Julio Jones is a good matchup every week,” Ryan said. “I really believe that. And that’s no disrespect to anyone.”)
There’s Devonta Freeman (above), Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel — the list goes on. And they’re all young guys who seem to be getting better and better as this thing plays out. Ryan, who heard justified “MVP!” chants as he knelt out the clock Saturday, also credited the Atlanta offensive line’s work against perhaps the NFL’s best front as a “game-changer”.
After the Seahawks scored a touchdown on their opening drive Saturday, the Falcons went 75 yards in 13 plays to answer. Two more TD drives of 99 and 75 on drives surrounding halftime gave Atlanta a 26-10 lead that forced the Seahawks into catchup mode, which doesn’t suit them. That in turn put a young Atlanta defense that’s still finding its footing in coach Dan Quinn’s scheme in position to make some plays, too, including a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions.
Like the Falcons, their potential opponents next week are driven by offense. The Cowboys play fast and hard and disciplined for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, but they lack true difference-makers. The Packers have a few — end Mike Daniels, linebacker Clay Matthews, safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix — but injuries have taken a toll, particularly at cornerback.