Special teams not special for Hawks

For the second time in five years, the Seahawks and Falcons squared off in the Georgia Dome for the right to play in the NFC championship game.

Like 2012, the Seahawks enter the game riding high off a demonstrative win in the wildcard round having defeated the Detroit Lions last week 26-6 in Seattle. Having secured the second seed in the last week of the regular season with a win over the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons spent last weekend resting and preparing.

These two teams last met in Seattle during week five, when the Hawks came back to win 26-24 after blowing a 17-3 halftime lead. The game proved to be much fodder for talk radio hosts’ during the week as it ended on a controversial non-call on the Hawks’ Richard Sherman as he defended Atlanta’s Julio Jones on a fourth-down incompletion. While the refs declined to call pass interference to the chagrin of Atlanta fans, the play was also marred by an illegal head slap from Jones to Sherman at the beginning.

After a holding call backed up the Hawks to their 11-yard line on the opening kickoff, Russell Wilson and the offense marched methodically down the field, although Germain Ifedi suffered an ankle injury near midfield and was forced to leave the game. He did not return. A pair of third-down conversions by Baldwin and Rawls kept the drive alive before a 7-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Graham on another third down capped the 14-play drive.

Quarterback Matt Ryan and the league’s highest-scoring offense answered with their own 14-yard drive culminating in a 7-yard pass to Julio Jones. The drive was highlighted by the two-time All-Pro Jones, who caught 3 passes for 27 yards and drew a holding penalty on Sherman.

Devin Hester, playing against his former team, returned the ensuing kickoff to the Seahawks 45-yard line. Paul Richardson picked up where he left off from the previous week, securing a diving 33-yard catch. But Wilson was sacked by the Falcon’s Brooks Reed and the Seahawks were forced to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka for a 10-7 lead.

After a three-and-out by Atlanta, Hester returned the punt 80 yards, although it was all for naught as a holding penalty nullified the play and backed the Hawks up on their own 7-yard line. Two plays later, Ben Garland was credited with a sack in the endzone for a safety after Wilson was tripped by Rees Odhiambo. Odhiambo, playing for the injured Ifedi, stepped on Wilson’s foot as the quarterback took the snap from Justin Britt. The safety was the Falcons’ third in their past eight postseason games.

After the free kick, Atlanta drove down the field and Matt Bryant’s 35-yard field goal gave the Falcons a 12-10 lead with just over six minutes left before halftime.

Jon Ryan pinned the Falcons back on the 1-yard line with a 60-yard punt, but the Falcons took the ball right down the field. The Falcons faced no third downs and MVP-candidate Ryan completed 7-9 passes on the drive, culminating in a 14-yard toss to a wide-open Coleman in the left side of the endzone.

Another holding penalty on special teams left Wilson and Co. on the 8-yard line with 48 seconds before half. In the shadow of their endzone,the Hawks elected to run the ball twice with Alex Collins and entered the intermission trailing by nine.

The Falcons received the kick and DeShawn Shead suffered a non-contact knee injury on the first play from scrimmage as he was trying to cover Taylor Gabriel. Shead walked off the field under his own power and was replaced by DeAndre Elliott. Shead did not return.

Unfortunately for the Seahawks, Michael Bennett was also hurt during the drive as Atlanta marched towards the end zone. Bennett was able to return,but Devonta Freeman’s one-yard carry gave Atlanta a 25-10 lead with 9:16 left in the third quarter. Matt Bryant drilled the extra point to push the Falcons’ lead to 16.

On the kickoff return Hester was cut down at the Seahawks 11-yard line, backing up Wilson and the offense for the ensuing drive. Thomas Rawls provided a little spark for the stagnant offense, but the Seahawks were unable to capitalize and were forced to punt. However, an illegal formation rarely seen on the defense provided the Seahawks with another first down and new life.

After a four-yard loss by Rawls, Wilson hit postseason cult-hero Richardson for a 40-yard gain to the Atlanta 28. However, the drive stalled six plays later and Hauschka nailed a 26-yard field goal to cut Atlanta’s lead to 13 late in the third quarter.

But Atlanta answered and drove right down the field, highlighted by a 53-yard completion from Ryan to Freeman to beat a blitz. Cliff Avril was attempting to cover Freeman in a mistimed zone blitz and missed the tackle, resulting in the big play. Bryant’s 31-yard goal pushed the lead back to 16 to start the fourth quarter.

On the ensuing drive, a false start backed the Hawks up five yards to the 20-yard line.  Wilson overthrew Baldwin on a deep pass by a half-step on second down, and the Seahawks were forced to call a timeout on third down. After the regrouping, Wilson’s attempt to convert a third-and-15 was turned away on a scramble four yards short and the Seahawks were forced to punt for the second time.

On their next possession, Atlanta successfully challenged an incompletion on third down, resulting in a conversion as Justin Hardy was able to get both feet in-bounds. But the Seahawks defense stiffened, with tackle for loss by Bennett followed by  a sack by Frank Clark on second down resulted in third and long.

After just a 33-yard punt by the Falcon’s Matt Bosher, the Seahawks took possession of the ball at their 33-yard line with just over 11 minutes to play. A couple of Wilson scrambles and a completion to Baldwin put the ball at the Falcon’s 30-yard line with 9:12 left. But an incompletion, a sack, and pressure on third-down led to a desperation heave by Wilson that was picked off by Ricardo Allen at the Falcons nine-yard line. Allen ran it back to the Seahawks 45, effectively ending the game with eight-and-a-half minutes left on the clock. Ryan’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu was the icing on the cake in what might be the final game ever in the Georgia Dome.

Devin Hester’s 74-yard kickoff return was immediately followed by a 31-yard touchdown from Wilson to Baldwin, but it proved too little, too late for the Seahawks.

Deion Jones’ interception off a juggled tip by Seattle’s Luke Willson with two and half minutes left sealed the win for the Falcons. The Falcons chose to kneel three times after reaching the Seahawks two-yard line, preserving the 36-20 win.

After finishing the first half 8-9 for 92 yards and a touchdown, Wilson struggled in the second half before garbage time, finishing 17-30 for 225 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Ryan showed that his All-Pro season was no fluke, shredding the Earl Thomas-less secondary for 338 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.

Atlanta awaits the winner of tomorrow’s game between Dallas and Green Bay. If Green Bay wins, Atlanta will host the NFC Championship. If the Cowboys prevail, Dallas will host the Falcons and  the NFC Championship will showcase the number one and two seeds for the third consecutive year.


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