TOP 20 GAMES OF 2012

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Game 2: NFC divisional round

Gamers

Styles make fights, or so they say. So does strategy. That's the ticket for all of us who played Risk and Dungeons & Dragons as kids. Just call us football nerds.

Our No. 2 Game of 2012 was a sweet divisional-round affair that, in its underbelly, presented hardcore strategists with a series of enticing tactical intricacies. You know, the stuff that makes your artsy-fartsy neighbor hate pigskin.

On NFL Network NFL Replay will re-air the three best games of 2012 according to Elliot Harrison on Saturday, June 1.

Game 3: 4 p.m. ET; Packers at Vikings in Week 17

Game 2: 5:30 p.m. ET; Seahawks at Falcons, NFC divisional round

Game 1: 8 p.m. ET; game to be revealed May 31

The Seattle Seahawks hit the Georgia Dome as a run-oriented, don't-allow-the-opponent-to-score football club that was gradually allowing young passer Russell Wilson to use his arm more and more.

Mike Smith's team must have thought it was looking at its prepubescent self, as the Atlanta Falcons were once a Michael “Burner” Turner-fueled club that only asked Matt Ryan to do what was necessary. Boy, how times -- and styles -- have changed. All season, Smith's offense was run by new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who implemented an all-out attack with a mature point guard in Ryan.

But not on this day.

Atlanta's balanced attack gave the Seahawks' defense fits, as Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers combined for 24 carries, 162 yards and a 6.75 yard-per-carry average.

Koetter's offense mixed it up, riding both Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers enough to rack up 167 rushing yards on the day. Meanwhile, Ryan threw the long ball a couple of times early, including a beauty of a toss to Roddy White (more on this play below) to give Atlanta a 20-0 advantage at halftime. All in all, it was a successful strategy: Attack Seattle's strength -- a physical, effective secondary -- while simultaneously surprising the Seahawks by blowing the dust off the run game.

And Seattle's offense? It bumbled its way through the first half.

Down 13-0 in the second quarter, Seattle drove deep into Falcons territory. But then the Seahawks were thwarted on third-and-1. Or they thwarted themselves, depending on your tactical perspective.

With thumper Marshawn Lynch on the sideline, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll tried to call a timeout before the snap. The spastic coach missed the boat, the play went on and the entire Seattle sideline watched as the Falcons didn't miss Robert Turbin.

On fourth-and-1, the Seahawks blew it again.

First of all, they skipped a chance to get some points on the board with a field goal. But what followed was even more mind-boggling.

Lynch was ready this time. So, of course, the Seahawks gave the ball to fullback Michael Robinson.

Say what?!!

Let's see: Give the football to the league's most powerful tailback ... or a plodding fullback with no head of steam on a short handoff? The ‘Hawks chose the latter, and predictably came up empty. If you're a fan of “the game within the game,” you were either engaged or enraged.

Third/Fourth–and–1 Conversions -- 2012 Season
Team Conversion Rate Conversion Pct.
Patriots 27-for-34 79.4
Seahawks 20-for-27 74.1*
Bills 14-for-19 73.7
Redskins 16-for-22 72.7
Bengals 30-for-42 71.4
* 100 percent of pass plays converted

Don't worry, the Seahawks made up for it by forgoing a chip-shot field goal with 17 seconds left in the first half … only to have Wilson take a sack. Unable to stop the clock or line up, Seattle blew its second opportunity to get points.

At the break, this 20-0 ballgame looked ugly, not like one of the top games of 2012.

Then this whole blowout bidness got turned on its head.

Like a kid who has $50 left in Monopoly but won't let go of his hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, Seattle rode that killer secondary and smart football, completely owning the second half.

Wilson relentlessly attacked the Falcons' soft spot -- over the linebackers and in front of the safeties -- with intermediate throws. (The Seahawks' rookie quarterback would average a gaudy 17.2 yards per completion in the second half.)

While the Falcons' defense faltered, the Seahawks' defense produced an interception, a punt and another punt on Atlanta's first three drives of the fourth quarter.

Exposed schematically, Atlanta watched its lead shrink from 27-7 to 27-14 to 27-21 … to 27-28. Yes, Seattle jumped ahead.

Russell Wilson found tight end Zach Miller repeatedly during the divisional round. Miller caught eight passes for a career-high 142 yards.

That's when the annoying subtext to hitting, tackling and the other Neanderthal aspects of pro football -- strategy -- reared its head again ...

Sequence of the Game I: ... down 28-27, with 25 ticks and a timeout, the Falcons needed a hunk of real estate. The offense was parked at its own 28, realistically needing 40-plus yards to get into field goal range.

Seattle chose to blitz its dime defensive back (Winston Guy) leaving linebacker Bobby Wagner to cover slot receiver Harry Douglas. No chance. Give Atlanta 22 yards on a play that cost just six seconds.

On the next play, Seattle chose to blitz again, leaving Wagner alone with Tony Gonzalez. Cogitate on this matchup: 1,242 career receptions vs. four career pass breakups.

Give the Falcons another first down at the Seattle 31, and send in the kicker ...

Sequence of the Game II: ... for a free practice attempt.

Yes, per the usual nowadays, Carroll called the highly annoying, zero-proof-that-it-works timeout prior to the snap. Maybe he shouldn't have. As the whistle blew, calling the play dead, Matt Bryant took advantage with a quick dress-rehearsal kick … and pushed it wide right.

But no matter. After the timeout, the veteran kicker calmly lined up and drilled the non-practice shot. Falcons win?

Uhh, not yet.

With eight seconds still sitting on the clock, Atlanta takes its turn blowing in-game strategy, making Seahawks-Falcons jump off the scale in terms of playoff wildness. Trying to squib the ensuing kickoff, Bryant taps what amounts to an onside kick, giving Seattle the ball at its own 46 and six seconds to play with.

Another tough decision presented itself. Should Seattle a) try to complete a 15-yard out at the sideline, which could set up a long field goal attempt, or b) go short to give Wilson a shorter heave on a Hail Mary the following play? The Seahawks went with the latter, hitting Doug Baldwin for six yards to set up a desperation heave.

Looking back, the first option wasn't that plausible. First, completing that long of a throw is tough to do inside of six seconds -- not to mention, the Falcons would be looking to defend the sidelines. Secondly, it's highly doubtful 38-year old Ryan Longwell would hit from, say, 57 yards.

Wilson's Hail Mary never had a chance. Thank God. I don't think any of us could have handled much more from this roller coaster.

Can't-Miss Play: More tactics.

Up 13-0 late in the first half, the Falcons took one of the many vertical shots they attempted throughout the course of the game. Atlanta had a first down at the Seahawks' 47 -- a perfect spot for the deep ball. Here's why it's appropriate to go deep in this situation (and why the Falcons took another shot):

  • First down is usually a running down, so the defense might get caught with its pants down.
  • With the ball at midfield, there is plenty of room for receivers to sprint. As the offense gets closer to the end zone, quarterbacks run out of room to throw and receivers start getting close to that back line.
  • Also, in this spot, defensive backs still have a lot of ground to cover.
  • A sack doesn't knock the offense out of field goal range -- because it wasn't close enough for field goal anyway. A sack actually provides the punter with more room to pin the opponent.
  • From the 47, a completed bomb usually means six points.

Turner had just ripped off a 33-yard run two plays prior, so it had to at least be in the Seahawks' heads that Atlanta could run the rock again. Ryan instead faked a short pass left, which caused safety Kam Chancellor to cheat up. No bueno. Richard Sherman was left alone with Roddy White, losing the battle this time around.

As stated, a completion in this scenario usually translates to points. It did: 20-0, Falcons.

Best Player on the Field: Wilson played like a 10-year vet in the second half, showing a level of postseason composure rarely seen from any rookie, regardless of position. For the game, Wilson completed 24 of his 36 passes for 385 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Why This Game is No. 2: This was the most exciting game this writer saw all year, kick to gun.

But what really put Seahawks-Falcons over the top was the frenzied finish: Lynch scores a touchdown to give Seattle the lead with 31 seconds left, Bryant misses then makes the game-winning field goal ... only to botch the ensuing kickoff, giving Wilson two plays from midfield with two timeouts. Man, as if this divisional-round matchup wasn't an awesome three-hour deal before, the last half-minute made it priceless.

Visit NFL Game Center for more on the Seahawks at Falcons, NFC Divisional Round.

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