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Falcons don’t know what to expect from their young, untested defense

Even some in the Falcons organization are wondering if the defense is ready for a playoff game against the Seahawks.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Plenty of chatter from Seattle has surfaced about the Atlanta Falcons offense.

"They’re good at everything on offense," Seattle coach Pete Carroll roared. "They give you all the problems that anybody could give you."

Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner is impressed.

"They’re fast, they’re good," Wagner said.

The Falcons call this "The Year of Matt Ryan." Ryan in his last four games has thrown 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Atlanta led the league in points scored (540). That is eighth most in NFL history, nearly 34 points per game.

That is an extravagant offense.

But what does everyone have to say about the Atlanta Falcons defense?

Not so much.

* * *

Seattle plays at Atlanta on Saturday and the winner advances to the NFC championship game. The Falcons will provide another classic study of how a power offensive team with a middling defense fares in the NFL postseason. Can the Falcons defense rise up? Or can the Falcons offense command this game and simply score more points than Seattle?

People remember the Buffalo BillsSuper Bowl loss to the Giants and the old St. Louis Rams’ Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots and even last year’s Carolina Panthers’ Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos. The losers showcased fancy, killer offenses –- until they didn’t. And their defenses could not do enough to matter.

It has happened repeatedly in NFL postseason history, stoking fire to the concept that defense is the playoff elixir.

Dan Quinn, the Falcons coach, and Carroll used to work together in Seattle. They are both defensive-minded coaches. Both talk fast and believe in "letting it rip." Both are animated talkers. They are friends. They are philosophically similar.

But Carroll has had time to build the "Legion of Boom" defense in Seattle.

Quinn, in his second Falcons season, has the 27th-ranked defense.

It allowed nearly 26 points a game this season. Seven of the 11 defensive starters on Saturday enter their first playoff game.

Falcons linebacker Vic Beasely led the NFL in sacks (15.5) this season. But most NFL fans likely could not name another Falcons defensive starter.

It is an anonymous group that has played an anonymous and sometimes annoying brand of defensive football this season. Late in the season, it showed promise. But Falcons sources I spoke to on Thursday made this clear -– this group scares the heck out of them in this playoff game.

"We really don’t’ know what to expect from our defense," a Falcons executive said, requesting anonymity. "In an intense playoff game like this, it’s a real toss-up."

Quinn says his defense has practiced fast and physical this week. He wants it to feature competitiveness and toughness. Rookie safety Keanu Neal is certainly an example of that. Quinn says his defense is designed to play with style and attitude. He takes ownership of it.

It is clear how much it would mean to him if his defense could swipe center stage in this playoff game.

* * *

Atlanta lost at Seattle, 26-24, on Oct. 16. Seattle led, 17-3, at halftime. Atlanta scored 21 consecutive points in the third quarter before losing.

It is a huge game for Ryan. He is 1-4 in playoff games.

It is a turnover emphasis game, as are all playoff battles. The Atlanta offense only committed 11 this season, tied for fewest with New England. But Seattle is 7-0 this season when it gains the turnover edge. Seattle is also 0-8 in its last eight road games as underdog. Yes, even with the Falcons’ risky defense, the Seahawks are underdogs.

It has been a distinctive season for the Falcons. They dethroned Carolina as NFC South champions. They pushed aside Tampa Bay and New Orleans for the divisional crown. They finished 11-5 and claimed the NFC’s No. 2 seed. They have enjoyed an extra week of rest and preparation for Seattle. They know elusive Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. They are familiar with the Seahawks dynamic offensive weapons, including tight end Jimmy Graham. They know the Legion of Boom.

They just need a defensive answer.