This Falcons team is not much different from the one that slunk out of the Meadowlands 24--2 losers to the Giants in an NFC wild-card game last year—save for one very important newbie, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who has significantly changed the football life of Matt Ryan. Here's how: Last season Ryan was a 30% passer on balls thrown 20 yards or farther. That's bad. This year, with Koetter calling more deep routes than predecessor Mike Mularkey, Ryan improved to 42.6%. Ryan's yards per attempt—the barometer stat for passing efficiency—was up only marginally, from 7.4 to 7.7, but that's because he completed roughly double the number of screens this year compared with last, as Koetter strove to get the ball more often to running back Jacquizz Rodgers in space and also to wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White on bubble screens.
There may not be a quarterback in the playoffs with better weaponry at his disposal than Ryan has. Jones is a classic deep threat, and White is as strong and tough an intermediate receiver as any still playing. But the key man is tight end Tony Gonzalez, who spent the off-season improving his grip and arm strength, the better to keep 'backers from slashing the ball out of his grasp. The result: Gonzalez had his best season in Atlanta, catching 93 passes for 930 yards. He'll have his work cut out for him against Seattle, which allowed just four TDs to tight ends in 2012.
Ryan, 27, seems to be growing into his role as a team leader. In the week following a loss to Carolina in early December, he made an emotional locker room plea: If every man here gives me 30 minutes of extra work per day this week, I'll work an hour longer every day. The Falcons clubbed the Giants 34--0 the next week.
Defensively, the big question will be the availability and explosiveness of defensive end John Abraham, the only bona fide pass rusher Atlanta has and just the guy to contain scrambling Seattle QB Russell Wilson on the edges. Abraham suffered what looked to be a nasty ankle injury in Week 17 against Tampa Bay, but in the Falcons' off week he was neither wearing a protective boot nor limping. He says he'll be ready against the Seahawks.
Still, it could be another premature playoff exit if the Falcons allow a strong back—Marshawn Lynch and later, perhaps, Frank Gore—to run the way backs have run on Atlanta all season. The Falcons' D was 29th in the NFL in yards per carry (4.8), and Carolina gashed it for 394 rushing yards over two games. In particular, defensive tackles Peria Jerry and Corey Peters have been exploited against the run. Atlanta simply has to be stouter—or it must score in the 30s consistently—to compensate.
The secondary, helped by upstart third-year corner Robert McClain and veteran pickup Asante Samuel, has been a strength. The unit excels at pilfering passes (20 picks), and that will be vital against the franchise QBs the Falcons would face—a future one in Wilson, and then two surefire Hall of Famers in Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning if the rest of the playoffs go as I expect—on their way to a title.