December 19, 2010 in Sports

Falcons start of tough final road for Seahawks

Seattle Times
 
Associated Press photo

QB Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons (11-2) bring a league- best seven-game win streak to Quest Field for today’s game.
(Full-size photo)

SEATTLE – The Falcons are a team the Seahawks hope to be one day.

But for now, Atlanta is a team Seattle hopes to beat today as the margin for error in this once-promising season shrinks.

“If you look at our schedule, the playoffs kind of start now for us,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “We’re playing playoff teams.”

The Falcons certainly fit that description, riding the league’s longest active winning streak at seven games. Seattle plays in Tampa Bay next week where the Bucs are playing for the postseason, and then comes Seattle’s regular-season finale against St. Louis in a game that could decide the NFC West.

This game against Atlanta is not a measuring stick. The Falcons are too good for that. It’s not a progress report, either, considering Seattle is one of only two home teams not favored this weekend. This is a chance, however, for Seattle to salvage what was once promising playoff positioning.

“It’s a good challenge,” Hasselbeck said. “Huge challenge. I think it’s exciting. Guys are excited about the opportunity.”

The Falcons are 11-2 for only the second time in their franchise’s history, and the Seahawks have not beaten a team that finished a season with 10 or more victories since the Super Bowl season of 2005.

Hard to find any element of this game that would be considered an advantage for Seattle.

The Falcons’ Michael Turner ranks fourth in the league in rushing while the Seahawks’ rush defense has steadily eroded. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is one of the up-and-coming quarterbacks in this league, and Seattle’s secondary is hemorrhaging passing yards for the third consecutive season.

The Seahawks are a team that has depended on turnovers in their victories, forcing 15 in the six wins. The Falcons don’t commit many, just 13 on the year.

“Any aspect of these guys is really sharp,” coach Pete Carroll said of the Falcons.

It’s an intimidating prospect for the Seahawks, who have given up more than 40 points in two of their past three home games. Just three weeks ago, Kansas City scored 42 points behind an offense that looks an awful lot like Atlanta’s – an elite running back paired with an effective quarterback.

The Chiefs are in the second year of a rebuilding program under coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli. The Falcons are in their third year of coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff.

The Seahawks are still in the first year of the reassembly. No one expected a playoff berth in Seattle. At least not when the season started. This was a franchise that had lost 11 or more games in two successive seasons and then turned over half of its 53-man roster during the offseason.

For the second consecutive year, Seattle’s most valuable player has been on special teams. Last year, it was either punter Jon Ryan or kicker Olindo Mare. This year? Leon Washington, who has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and nearly scored on a punt return.

The rest of the team has showed the growing pains of establishing a program, as Carroll would say. Only Washington is giving up more yards on defense, only Indianapolis is averaging fewer rushing yards per game.

But Seattle’s division has left the door open to such an extent that even a team like Seattle – which has lost five of its past seven games – doesn’t just have a chance, but controls its fate.

So Atlanta just doesn’t resemble the type of team Seattle wants to become, it’s a gauge that will indicate how quickly the Seahawks can get there.

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