By Nick Shook
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Monday Night Football heads to the Pacific Northwest to finish Week 11 for an important NFC battle between the reigning conference champions and a contending team attempting to overcome adversity brought on by the injury bug. The Atlanta Falcons travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks in a game that could go a long way toward determining this year’s postseason qualifiers.
Offensively, these two teams are nearly identical in total production, with Seattle owning a 0.4-yard advantage in average yards gained per game. How they get there, though, is different.
Known for its big-play capability last season through the air, Atlanta has become a tad more balanced, gaining 116.4 rushing yards per game. But the difference is only noticeable when compared with Seattle, which averages 100.7 yards per game but gets most of that from its quarterback.
Defensively, they’re about as close, with Atlanta’s group being better against the pass than Seattle. That could change in the weeks ahead, starting with Monday night, as the Seahawks are attempting to deal with two major losses in their secondary.
Excited yet? Of course you are. Here’s what to watch for in Falcons-Seahawks on Monday Night Football.
1. A decimated Legion of Boom. The Seahawks lost Richard Sherman for the season to injury in Week 10, and news came down Saturday that safety Kam Chancellor is also expected to miss the remainder of the season. One loss is big but a team can attempt to remedy it — Seattle did so by signing familiar face Byron Maxwell at corner — but two is massive and perhaps season-altering. The 14th-ranked Seahawks pass defense just got much worse at one of the more inopportune times, facing a Falcons team that is 11th in passing but possesses the weapons to explode for plenty of air yardage. Perhaps we’re walking into one of those nights Monday.
2. Atlanta’s running game without Devonta Freeman. The Falcons are averaging 116.4 yards per game on the ground, but the majority of those yards have been gained by Freeman, who won’t play on Monday night due to a concussion. Enter Tevin Coleman, who was effective last week in a win over the Dallas Cowboys, rushing for 83 yards and one touchdown on 20 carries. Coleman is also effective out of the backfield, making his threat all the more prominent for Seattle’s defensive game plan. Losing a player like Freeman never makes a team better, but luckily for Atlanta, they have a pretty good guy behind him on the depth chart.
3. Falcons‘ pass rush vs. Seahawks‘ line. We’re just a week removed from Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn setting the franchise’s single-game record for sacks with six in a dominant performance against Dallas. Seattle’s offensive line has struggled for quite some time now (though they’ve found a better option at left tackle in recently acquired Duane Brown), making this a night for last season’s sack leader, Vic Beasley, to get on track. He’ll have to chase one of the league’s most mobile quarterbacks in Russell Wilson, who, considering how punchless the Seahawks‘ rushing attack has been, has thrown Seattle into contention. Simply put, without Wilson, the Seahawks aren’t sitting with the sixth seed after nine games. A large part of this game will come down to how well Atlanta pressures Wilson, and if the Falcons can bottle up the slippery quarterback.
4. Wild card positioning. Seattle and Atlanta have each won two of their last three, and are trailing their respective division leaders. But for these two teams, this game has vastly different implications. Should the Falcons fall, they’ll slide back to .500 and on par with the Packers and Cowboys, two teams considered to be on the precipice of fading into the abyss. Unlike the logjammed AFC, the NFC boasts five teams with seven or more wins. The Seahawks own the sixth seed at 6-3 with Monday night’s game yet to be played. Falling two games behind the wild card owners with six to play is incredibly dangerous. Simply put, Atlanta needs this game.
As for Seattle, a loss wouldn’t doom the Seahawks, but would put them in a tie for the wild card with Detroit and Atlanta, with the latter owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. A win would go a long way toward easing the concerns surrounding the Seahawks after losing two crucial defenders. We’re nearing the pivotal point of the season, folks.
5. Last season, we saw one of the year’s more thrilling contests between these two teams in Seattle. A 21-point barrage from the Falcons put them ahead 24-17 in the third, but a touchdown and a field goal scored by two Seahawks who are no longer in Seattle were the difference. That game also included a Seahawks offense that was slightly better at running the football, and a Falcons offense that was head and shoulders above this season’s unit. Earl Thomas made a pivotal interception off the hands of Sherman, who won’t play on Monday night. The two were also in coverage of Julio Jones on the deciding fourth-down play that very easily could have been flagged for pass interference.
And then, three months later, the Falcons blasted the Seahawks 36-20 in the NFC Divisional Round.
There’s some unfinished business for each side in this matchup, and with the aforementioned playoff positioning on the line, this contest should be among the more spirited ones this season. It’s all setting up for quite the show.