When the Seahawks host the Falcons Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field, it will be a classic strength vs. strength matchup as Atlanta's top-ranked offense faces a Seattle defense that has allowed the fewest yards and third fewest points in the NFL this season.
A game between two first-place teams inevitably will feature numerous intriguing matchups, from the obvious, such as Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman covering Falcons receiver Julio Jones, to the more subtle, but equally important battles that could make a difference.
In addition to the much-anticipated battle between Sherman and Jones, which we covered earlier this week, here are three key matchups that could determine the outcome of Sunday's game:
1. Falcons Running Backs Devonta Freeman & Tevin Coleman vs Seattle's Linebackers
In an NFL that is becoming increasingly specialized, Seahawks linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright take a lot of pride in being every-down players, and what allows them to do that is a combination of size, athletic ability and football savvy that makes them adept at both stopping the run and at covering opposing running backs and tight ends in passing situations.
And while quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones get a lot of the attention when it comes to Atlanta's offense, the Falcons have another very dangerous duo in the form of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, both of whom have the talent and versatility to test Wagner, Wright and the rest of Seattle's defense.
"We'll definitely have our hands full, but it's going to be fun," Wright said. "… This game is a linebacker's game."
Five games into the season, Coleman and Freeman have combined for 1,000 all-purpose yards (527 from Freeman and 473 from Coleman) and eight touchdowns, putting them on pace to become the first running back duo in NFL history to eclipse 1,500 all-purpose yards individually in the same season.
"Both guys are really good," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "They're really all-round football players. They're comfortable throwing them the ball in all different situations, from the backfield and moving out, running individual routes as well. These guys are good. Devonta is really quick, Tevin showed us last week his versatility, getting down the field, catching the ball. They've got to be really fired up about those guys because they have a lot of stuff they can do with them, and we can't zero in on it because of that. They're very fortunate."
While the Seahawks have been very good against the run this year, that's only part of the equation against Atlanta's backs, and against Coleman in particular. Coleman had 132 receiving yards on just four catches last week, and has 313 receiving yards this season. He has shown the ability to not just make catches out of the backfield, but to line up as a receiver, run routes and make big plays.
Wright called the Falcons backs "the best I've seen all year," in terms of receiving ability, noting that while some teams motion backs to receiver just to act as decoys or to get a defense to show its hand, "this team actually sends these guys vertical and he looks at them as a number one target… They throw the ball to other guys besides Julio and (Mohamed) Sanu, they can spread it around to everyone."
Added Wagner: "For me and KJ, it's the backs. They do a good job of getting the backs out, a good job of using them in all types of ways. We've got to make sure we do a good job covering them, but I think it's a challenge K.J. and I are up to, and we're looking forward to it."
2. Jimmy Graham vs Atlanta's Pass Coverage
In case you somehow missed it, Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham has been very good of late, becoming the first Seahawks pass-catcher to record back-to-back 100-yard receiving games since 2010.
Plenty of that has to do with Graham's physical ability—the Seahawks gave up a first-round pick to acquire him for a reason—but Graham's recent success also speaks to the growing chemistry between him and Russell Wilson.
"It has really come along," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "We talked about just the rapport that they had and kind of just a work in progress. I saw Jimmy saying, 'He trusts me, he's just throwing it up there.' It's good that they have that vibe and it's going really well. Russell is trusting him and obviously the more you come up with those big plays, then you trust him more… It has been great the last couple weeks."
The Falcons haven't been torched by tight ends this season—New Orleans' Coby Fleener is the only opposing tight end to eclipse 100 yards against Atlanta thus far—but they have given up five touchdowns in as many games to tight ends, which is less a reflection of their defense and more of a reminder of how tight ends can create mismatches against any defense.
Graham and Wilson pick up where they left off before the bye, they should be able to make things tough on Atlanta's defense.
3. The Special Teams Battle
While most of the focus Sunday will understandably be on Seattle's defense trying to contain an explosive Atlanta offense, the less discussed third phase of the game could also be hugely important, particularly if weather is a factor, putting even more emphasis on field position.
Both teams feature talented returners in Eric Weems and Tyler Lockett, particularly if Lockett is closer to full health. Seahawks punter Jon Ryan is coming off of NFC special teams player of the week honors, and he isn't even the best punter in this game, statistically speaking, not with Atlanta's Matt Bosher averaging 47.4 per punt and a net average of 44.1 yards per punt. Both team's kickers are also perfect on field goal attempts this year, with Steven Hauschka making all eight attempts and Matt Bryant going 11 for 11.
"That'll be one of the games within the game," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of special teams play. "Two tough, hard-nosed units battling for it."
The Seahawks and Falcons have battled 16 times, including playoffs, since 1976, with Seattle owning 10 victories. The two teams meet again this Saturday in the Divisional Round of the playoffs at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.