The Atlanta Falcons are headed back to the playoffs, and the Seattle Seahawks are headed home.
The Falcons sewed up the final spot in the NFC playoffs with a consistent, if not necessarily convincing, 22-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers. That rendered Seattle’s game against Arizona obsolete, but the Seahawks lost anyway, 26-24.
The numbers weren’t in Seattle’s favor from the start. The Seahawks needed both a victory and a Falcons loss; numerically, they had only a one-in-four chance of winning, and strength-of-opponent factors gave the Seahawks only about a 37 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. And the Seahawks couldn’t sustain the fight against a vastly inferior Cardinals team, only managing a lead for a brief moment in the fourth quarter before succumbing.
The NFC South thus places three of its four teams in the playoffs. The Falcons haven’t made anyone forget their Super Bowl collapse, but in returning to the postseason, they haven’t curled up into a fetal position and surrendered the season either. Matt Ryan finished the day completing 28-of-45 passes for 317 yards and a touchdown, but it was kicker Matt Bryant who once again saved the game for Atlanta. Bryant kicked five field goals, including a 56-yarder, to keep the Falcons’ red zone woes from turning fatal.
The Panthers, for their part, looked out of sync all afternoon. Running back Jonathan Stewart was inactive for the game, and the Panthers struggled with the ground game all day long. No runner other than Cam Newton gained more than 16 yards.
Newton, for his part, was less than spectacular. He missed on his first nine passes, and never seemed to settle in either in the air or on the ground. His interception with 4:20 left in the game effectively killed the Panthers’ last hopes for victory, and his last-second INT truly killed them. If you’re looking for omens, this wasn’t a good one: Newton was erratic and off-target all game. He finished the game 14-of-34 for 180 yards, one touchdown and a cringeworthy three interceptions.
The Falcons will thus move on to face the Los Angeles Rams on the road, while the Panthers will travel to New Orleans to take on the NFC South champion Saints. Atlanta didn’t play Los Angeles this year, while Carolina lost both of its games against New Orleans.
Seattle, meanwhile, heads home with more questions than answers. Russell Wilson remains at the peak of his powers, but the fabled Legion of Boom is beginning to fragment, brought low by age and injury. Seattle lost three of its final four games and let a playoff berth slip away, and this will be a long offseason as a result.
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