Wild Card Weekend is history, and now it's time for the top-seeded teams in the AFC and NFC to enter the playoff fray. The stakes couldn't be higher in the divisional round, with the right to play on Championship Sunday on the line. Let's take a closer look at all four games.
No team this season -- literally, not a single team -- will face as much pressure and scrutiny over one performance as the Falcons will endure Sunday. Few teams have ever put together a 13-win season -- tied for the best record in the NFL -- while impressing so few people. Why, you ask? Because none of it matters unless the Falcons can also win in the playoffs, something they've failed to do in each of their three postseason forays under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. This time, in order to remove the proverbial monkey from their backs, they'll have to defeat the Seahawks, a youthful team that's seemingly playing as loose and free-spirited as any still competing.
Player to watch
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks: If there's one player capable of making this day miserable for the Falcons' defense, it has to be Lynch. Should he enter into "Beast Mode" at any point Sunday, he has the potential to cripple Atlanta's 21st-ranked run defense while opening up the passing game for rookie Russell Wilson. With last Sunday's 132-yard effort against the Washington Redskins (tying a franchise playoff record) and a memorable 67-yard run in a 2010 wild-card win against the New Orleans Saints on his résumé, Lynch seems to have an affinity for big games. And this, most certainly, qualifies as such.
Mike Smith, Falcons coach: As far as players are concerned, the pressure falls squarely on quarterback Matt Ryan's shoulders. But the NFL world will also keep a close eye on Smith to see how he handles the pressure of big moments. Can he manage the clock appropriately? Can he make tough decisions down the stretch? Will he trust his offense when the game is on the line? Smith seemingly has made great strides this season in many of these aspects, but can he also keep his wits about him during the postseason? That is a question many in Atlanta want answered.
Matchup to watch
Matt Ryan vs. the Seahawks' secondary: It isn't so much the impressive statistics that should strike fear in quarterbacks, but rather the way in which Seattle's cornerbacks play. The Seahawks boast a tough, aggressive bunch, led by Richard Sherman, that will smother and bully opponents. That being said, the Falcons have their share of great offensive weapons, making this an intriguing matchup. Atlanta would be wise to cue up film of the first quarter of last Sunday's NFC Wild Card Game, when the Washington Redskins seemed to find a way, through very aggressive play at the line of scrimmage, to get under the Seahawks' skin, albeit temporarily.
Did you know?
The Falcons have concluded each of their last five seasons with a winning record. ... Ryan has never lost back-to-back home games in college or the NFL. Because he lost at home in Week 17 of the regular season, a loss Sunday would mark the first time he's lost two in a row on a friendly field. ... Wilson is trying to become just the fifth rookie quarterback in NFL history to advance to a conference championship. He'd be the first rookie to ever play in a Super Bowl, if he made it that far. ... Last week, Wilson became the third rookie QB in NFL history to win a playoff game after trailing at halftime. ... Sherman had eight interceptions (tied for second in NFL), three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery during the regular season -- but he didn't record any stats against the Redskins.
I understand that the Seahawks deserve a massive amount of respect. I understand that the Falcons have a history of vulnerability in the playoffs, despite their regular-season success. I understand that Seattle is playing loose, solid football. But I'm still unwilling to discount Atlanta's potential this season based on past failures. The Falcons are among the most talented teams in football, and their record over a 17-week span proved as much. Let's all remember something about their past three playoff losses: Each of the teams that beat them advanced to the Super Bowl, with two of those teams winning the whole thing. I understand the doubts. But I'm unwilling to buy into them.