The Seattle Seahawks beat the Atlanta Falcons in Week 6 of the regular season, a matchup between NFC heavyweights who, not surprisingly, wound up running into each other again in the postseason, with the Falcons hosting Seattle Saturday in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
But while that game took place less than three months ago, both teams are different, both in terms of how they are playing and in personnel, and both feel like they're better now than they were in October.
"There are quite a few guys that weren't playing in the game for us," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I don't know what the factor is going to be, but we feel much more comfortable now than we did then at the time. We played a good football game that day. It was a hard game, very difficult challenge that day, but we've got a pretty good group of guys coming out for us this time."
That group of players who weren't available for the previous Atlanta game and should be this week includes defensive end Frank Clark, safety Kam Chancellor, running back Thomas Rawls and possibly running back C.J. Prosise, who returned to practice this week and has a chance to play. Defensive end Michael Bennett also left that game midway through the third quarter with a knee injury. The Seahawks have also added fullback Marcel Reece since then and seen him become an important piece of the offense, they made a change at left tackle, and quarterback Russell Wilson is significantly healthier now than he was back then when he was still dealing with knee and ankle injuries. On a less positive note, the Seahawks have since lost safety Earl Thomas and receiver Tyler Lockett to season-ending injuries.
While the Seahawks certainly miss Thomas, they have been getting good play out of Steven Terrell since Thomas went down in Week 13. Terrell had to do some on-the-job learning, but has seen his level of play improve over the past month in the first significant defensive playing time of his career.
"He is better," Carroll said. "He's much more comfortable and confident in what he's asked to do and what it takes to get done. He has played really well. I know there's a lot of question, but he has done a really good job. We're really happy with the progress he has made. Everybody is going to give up something every once in a while, but he has not given up very much. This is a big challenge, these guys really work the field and he's going to have some opportunities. He's got to do a great job back there. Probably the biggest growth has come from communication from our guys. We're all talking about it, we're understanding the nonverbal communications and all the things that have to go on back there. They're a long ways along now, it's been six or seven games or something that he's been playing. He is not a first-time guy, young guy playing anymore."
Added Terrell: "I do feel better. It's just getting out there and getting those reps. I feel comfortable in myself going forward after playing… I don't know how many games. I'm just trying to grow and learn from these games, not make the same mistakes and just continue to get better.
"It's learning from those experiences and not letting them happen more than once. That's my biggest thing right now, just staying true to my technique and doing my job in the defense and trying to get better every week."
And while Terrell didn't play safety against the Falcons earlier this season, he has learned a lot watching that game multiple times this week and seeing how Thomas handled things.
"I watched that game probably three times already," Terrell said. "In my opinion, that was one of (Thomas') best games, so there's a lot I can learn from and build off of from that game watching him. There's some stuff I probably won't be able to do, but it's good that we played them already. I've got an idea of our scheme against them."
The Falcons, meanwhile, have seen three rookie starters on defense, safety Keanu Neal and linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, take strides in their play since that earlier game. That has helped the Atlanta defense cut is points allowed by more than a touchdown late in the season, from 28 points through 10 games to 20.5 in their final six. And on offense, receiver Taylor Gabriel has emerged as a threat since the previous meeting. However, like the Seahawks, the Falcons have also lost a key player to injury, with Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant going on injured reserve with a pectoral injury.
"It was a battle," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of his team's game in Seattle earlier this season. "We thought going in that it was totally going to be that way as well… I would say, you do gain some things by going through some difficult losses. Just like they have and we have, when you go through some of those tough, straining times, there are lessons to be learned there. When we came back from that game, we were disappointed in not winning the game, but there were definitely things to gain. As far as the scheme goes and matchups, both teams now are a better version of themselves when we played back then, so we're expecting, just like I would think they are, another tough, hard-nosed game between two really good teams."
Yet even if things have changed since these teams played in October, both because they are familiar with each other having played recently, but also because of the connections between coaching staffs. In addition to Quinn, who was the Seahawks' defensive coordinator before being hired by Atlanta, the Falcons coaching staff also includes four assistants who worked under Carroll in Seattle—secondary coach Marquand Manuel, offensive line coach Chris Morgan, assistant offensive line coach Keith Carter, and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich.
That familiarity can be a blessing and a curse for both teams, depending on how they use the information they have on each other.
"You can over-coach it, overthink it," Carroll said. "Just like you can try too hard when you're playing, it's the same thing—you can try too hard. Coaching always is a call to the balance of how much is too much and how much is just right. We have millions of ideas and we have to really figure out what the players can handle and execute and if they're going to fit. We can certainly over-coach this, yeah."
For Carroll and his staff, finding that balance between using information to their advantage and over-coaching is pretty much a feel thing that is based off of years of experience.
"You can't ask anybody, you just have to do it," Carroll said. "Somewhere in there, you make a decision. We work together to try to figure that out, and the coordinators have to sense from the assistant coaches how they feel about it, if they feel like they're overburdening their players and stuff like that. There's an ongoing conversation about it, but eventually you just have to feel it and call it."
And just as coaches after to avoid over-coaching, players facing a team with which they're familiar have to avoid overthinking things as a play unfolds.
"Sometimes you can (overthink it), because you think, they're watching the same film too, so they're going to maybe do something extremely different than they've already done," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "Then you get out there and you realize they're doing the same exact thing that they did last time, they're just trying to execute it better. I think that's the same thing with us. It's all about execution, if we execute better then we'll be fine. Just like the last game we had some mishaps in coverages, if we were to execute, I feel like that game would've been better. When you feel good about a game plan you don't have to change much, you just make sure you execute whatever game plan you have going into that week."
Get to know the faces of the Atlanta Falcons' offensive and defensive units heading into the team's Divisional Round playoff matchup with the Seattle Seahawks.