ATLANTA —For all the strategy and analysis involved, football isn’t a complicated game.
So let us simplify today’s Seahawks-Falcons NFL divisional playoff game. The Seahawks are one of the best rushing teams in the league, and the Falcons are below average at stopping the run.
Game plan in a nutshell: Saddle up Marshawn Lynch and ride him into the NFC championship game.
Too simple? OK, here are some numbers: The Seahawks rushed for 224 yards against the NFL’s No. 5 rushing defense in Washington last week. How much should they be able to gain against the No. 21 Falcons, who give up 4.8 yards a carry? Enough to win.
So the Seahawks’ strength matches up against the Falcons’ weakness.
And while the Falcons are one of the best passing teams in the league, the Seahawks are one of the best defending the pass. Their strength is countered by Seattle’s strength.
On the way to the No. 1 seed in the NFC, Atlanta won 13 games. But they’ve lost two of their last four. In the loss to Tampa Bay two weeks ago, Doug Martin rushed for 142 yards, and in the loss to Carolina, the Falcons gave up 195 yards on the ground.
See a trend?
If the Hawks aren’t handing it to Lynch every other play we should be asking questions.
After the Pro Bowl running back’s 132 yards on 20 carries in the win over Washington, he has been rested during most of the practices this week, being listed as probable with a foot injury. But that was the excuse for his taking time off before the Redskins game, too, and he didn’t seem to be too bothered by it.
The Hawks have been judicious with the application of Lynch this season. Yes, he has 335 carries up to this point, but he’s been getting rest during the week, and rookie backup Robert Turbin has been giving him breaks in games.
Lynch has had only one game with more than 20 carries in the last seven weeks (26 against San Francisco).
By comparison, Shaun Alexander had 370 carries in the regular season in 2005, and added another 60 by the time the Hawks were finished in Super Bowl XL.
Granted, the Falcons are loaded with offensive threats. Consider this: If Seattle’s leading receiver Sidney Rice were a Falcon, his 50 catches would make him the No. 5 receiver.
Roddy White and Julio Jones are probably the best tandem of outside receivers in the league, and they’re not even the leading receiver. Tony Gonzalez, the most productive tight end in the history of the NFL, leads the Falcons with 93 catches.
And a couple inside guys, Jacquizz Rodgers and Harry Douglas have 91 catches between them.
Seattle’s rangy and physical cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, should test White and Jones, but that leaves Gonzalez and the others with some likely mismatches.
Making it all more of a challenge for the secondary will be the absence of the Seahawks’ best pass rusher, Chris Clemons, who is done because of a knee injury suffered at Washington.
He’s replaced by rookie Bruce Irvin, who might be able to duplicate Clemons’ pressure, but may find his head swimming when he has to handle all the other duties of an every-down defensive end.
Another injury loss is worrisome to the Seahawks, as they had to hire Ryan Longwell to replace kicker Steven Hauschka (calf). Longwell is a vet with playoff experience, but he hasn’t kicked with a team all season.
The Falcons are loaded with veterans, savvy and smart, and they don’t make mistakes and are penalized half as many times (55) as the Seahawks (110).
And their quarterback, Matt Ryan, is one of the best in the league. But it is curious this season that he has played much better on the road (111.3 passer rating) than at home (86.2).
So, where’s the pressure in this game? Entirely on Atlanta. Neither Ryan nor coach Mike Smith have won a playoff game.
In Ryan’s three playoff tries, he has never passed for more than 200 yards, and has three touchdown passes against four interceptions.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, are loose, confident and, as the second-youngest team in the NFL, they’re too new to everything to even think about pressure.
So here’s how it plays out: Lynch is huge; he lives for games like this, and he adds to his beastly legacy. But the Falcons put up points, too, as the receivers are tough to contain.
And in the end, in the most unlikely scenario, Longwell kicks the game winner to make it 31-28 Seahawks.