SEATTLE AT ATLANTA (Noon CT)
Even with the surging Seattle Seahawks standing in the way, the Atlanta Falcons are confident they can end their recent playoff struggles.
The top-seeded Falcons look to avoid a fifth consecutive playoff defeat while the Seahawks try to continue their postseason run with a seventh straight victory in Sunday's NFC divisional contest at the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta (13-3) is 56-24 in five seasons under coach Mike Smith, but 0-3 in the playoffs over the previous four. The Falcons have totaled 441 yards and allowed 884 while being outscored 72-23 in their last two playoff contests, including a 48-21 loss to Green Bay two years ago when they also held the NFC's top seed.
Though the Falcons' playoff futility has been a dark cloud hanging over Smith's otherwise successful tenure, they believe they've learned from the past playoff.
"We're a much more mature team because of our experiences," Smith said. "I think you learn from your previous experiences in the playoffs. This is a team that has been very focused from the very beginning of the season and we've got a lot of guys who have experienced the playoff atmosphere. They're going to be able to help some of the younger guys who haven't."
Paced by quarterback Matt Ryan, receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and future Hall-of-Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons were sixth in the NFL in passing (281.8 yards per game) and seventh in scoring (26.2 points). Ryan tied Peyton Manning with a league-best 68.6 completion percentage and recorded career highs of 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns under first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Ryan's teammates are confident he'll be that same quarterback and not the one who averaged 194.7 yards, threw three TDs, four picks and was sacked 10 times while posting a 71.2 rating and 0-3 playoff record.
White feels Ryan, who threw four TDs and one INT while winning at Seattle in 2010 and 2011, has "been mentally prepared throughout the whole season for this stretch run."
"He knows we have to win a playoff game," White added. "Everybody knows that, and not to put any pressure on him, but I just think that at this point in the season, everybody knows they have to play their best football right now."
White and Jones combined for 171 catches with 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns while Gonzalez is coming off the most productive of his four regular seasons in Atlanta with 93 receptions for 930 yards and eight TDs.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, Atlanta tied for fifth in the league with Seattle and Washington with 31 takeaways.
Despite his team's recent playoff history, Smith does not plan to change much.
"To me it's no different than any other game," he said. "It's 100 percent on our football team to go out and play our best. We feel like we accomplished what we needed to accomplish to get here and we are looking forward to playing against Seattle."
Though Atlanta has won three straight against the Seahawks (12-5), the visitors are filled with confidence heading into the teams' first postseason meeting.
After winning its final five regular-season contests, Seattle overcame a 14-0 deficit to snap an eight-game road playoff skid with a 24-14 victory at Washington last Sunday. The Seahawks are in the midst of their longest winning stretch since an 11-game run Oct. 9-Dec. 24, 2005.
"We haven't been as solid as we are now," coach Pete Carroll said. "We're much more solid in our thinking and mentality and just the resolve about everything we're doing."
Though the Seahawks will be without sack leader Chris Clemons (torn ACL), it was a group effort that helped them allow 15.3 points per contest, the fewest in the league. Their stout defense, which features big cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman, against Atlanta's potent passing attack figures to be the game's most intriguing matchup.
"I might be in the minority, but I look at it as strength on strength," Koetter said. "Heck, let's go. They've got a good defense, and we have a good offense. I know their team is running hot right now, and I know our guys are looking forward to the challenge."
While the Seahawks try to join the 1989 Los Angeles Rams as the only West Coast teams to win back-to-back playoff games on the East Coast, the Falcons don't think travel will make their opponent any less formidable.
"It's not like they're going to be going to the moon or anything," tackle Tyson Clabo said. "They have a schedule they follow when they travel and I'm sure they're going to keep it the same."
Seattle started 1-5 on the road before outscoring Chicago, Buffalo and the Redskins 97-48 to win the last three away from home. Paced by Pro Bowler Marshawn Lynch and rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks have averaged 223.3 rushing yards in those contests.
Lynch, who tied a franchise playoff record with 132 yards on 20 carries at Washington, has averaged 116.8 and 6.9 per carry while topping 100 yards in each of the last five contests.
Wilson threw for 187 yards with a TD and rushed eight times for 67 last week. The Falcons know they are in for a challenge trying to stop Wilson, who passed for 3,118 yards and ran for 489 while posting a 100.0 passer rating - fourth in the NFL - during the regular season.
Wilson threw 17 TDs and just two INTs over his final nine games, and his 116.9 passer rating since November is the league's best.
"You have to keep covering guys for a long time on the back end," said Nolan, whose defense ranked 21st in rushing at 123.2 yards per game. "That's one of the tougher things about him because when he's running around, you'd better stay with your man."
Clemons, meanwhile, wasn't the only Seahawk to suffer a season-ending injury against the Redskins. Seattle on Wednesday signed veteran kicker Ryan Longwell after placing Steven Hauschka on injured reserve with a calf injury.
Hauschka made all 23 attempts from inside 50 yards this season. Longwell, who last kicked with Minnesota in 2011, is 17 of 23 on field-goal attempts in the playoffs throughout his 15-year career.
HOUSTON AT NEW ENGLAND (3:30 p.m. CT)
One major reason the New England Patriots received a bye into this weekend's AFC divisional playoffs is their dominant performance in a rout of the Houston Texans last month.
Tom Brady and the league's highest-scoring team are heavily favored to do the same when these clubs meet Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Houston (13-4) seemed on track for the conference's top seed through most of the season before blowing that opportunity by losing three of its final four games, starting with a 42-14 defeat at New England on Dec. 10.
Brady threw touchdown passes on the first three drives for the high-powered Patriots (12-4), who bolted to a 21-0 lead and nullified the Texans' ability to control the game on the ground through Arian Foster.
"We know that our effort and how we performed last time wouldn't give us a chance against anybody on the road," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "It's about right now refocusing on all the things we have to do to go down there and have a chance to be successful, and I'm sure that's what they're thinking about."
Brady finished 21 of 35 for 296 yards and four TD passes in that contest even though New England was without an injured Rob Gronkowski, who finished tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 TD catches and is healthy now. The quarterback, who can pass Joe Montana by winning a record 17th postseason game Sunday, insists the Patriots won't be overconfident.
"I think you learn from it," said Brady, who guides a team averaging 34.8 points. "You also understand things aren't going to be the same. They're going to see things that they're working on that are going to be different for us this time around. We do the same thing."
Houston's vaunted pass rush produced 44 sacks for the league's fifth-highest total but dropped Brady just once. Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt led the NFL with 20½ sacks, but he had no sacks of Brady and just two tackles in the first matchup.
The second-year defensive end has 4½ sacks in three career postseason games and is looking to make amends.
"I mean, I got quite a few hits on Brady, but obviously the ball was gone every time," Watt said. "Didn't bat any balls, didn't have any tackles for a loss, so I need to do more."
The Texans brushed aside their poor finish to the season and limited Cincinnati to 198 total yards in last Saturday's 19-13 wild-card victory. Matt Schaub completed 29 of 38 passes for 262 yards in his first career postseason start, with his lone interception returned for a touchdown.
Foster keyed the victory with 140 yards on 32 carries with one score, also catching eight passes for 34. His 425 rushing yards are the most for a player in his first three playoff contests, and Houston won all eight games when he reached 100 this year.
"Last week, you saw why this guy is one of the top offensive players in the game, not just a back, but a top offensive player in the game," Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "The things that he can do with the ball in his hands, in the pass game and running it ... and he's a great blocker when they ask him to block. I mean he's a special player and we understand that."
Foster's rushing prowess is why it will be important for Houston to get off to a better start. He rushed 12 times for 44 yards in the first half of the first meeting but gained three yards on two carries the rest of the way with the Texans facing a big deficit.
"He's good with the ball in his hands and he's an excellent receiver," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "He's a very dangerous player. He's one of the best backs in the league, no question about that."
Foster has gained motivation for this matchup by a Boston newspaper column calling the Texans "fraudulent."
Schaub threw for 232 yards, no touchdowns and one INT in the first meeting, while Andre Johnson had eight catches for 95 yards. Johnson amassed 201 receiving yards last year in the postseason with T.J. Yates at quarterback, but he was held to 62 last week against the Bengals.
The Texans are also wary since the Patriots led the NFL in turnover differential at plus-25.
"They get them," Kubiak said. "They don't give it up. If we go in there and do anything to help them, we're in trouble."
Trying to slow down Brady, who threw for 34 TDs and led the AFC with 4,827 passing yards, figures to be a difficult task. The Texans will have a healthy Brooks Reed after the linebacker missed the first meeting with a groin injury.
Brady is 10-2 as a starter in the playoffs at home, but the most recent loss came two seasons ago in this round when New England fell 28-21 to a Jets team it had beaten 45-3 at home in the regular season. The other defeat came a season earlier to a Baltimore club the Patriots edged earlier that campaign.
"We've played division games where we've played the same team twice in the division or three times already this year," Belichick said. "Those games don't mean anything."
While the Texans lost in this round last season in Baltimore during their first postseason run, the Patriots are looking to become the first team to win a championship after losing in the Super Bowl the previous season since the 1972 Dolphins went 17-0 including the postseason.
"It's as exciting as there is," Brady said. "This is why we work hard. This is why we put the time in: so we can be at our best."
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