It was almost destined to happen. On Sunday afternoon, the sixth best passing offense will face the sixth best passing defense. Two should-be Pro Bowlers face up against two should-be Pro Bowlers. The battle to appear in the NFC Championship Game could come down to two matchups — Seattle cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner against Atlanta wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Oddly, even the players’ draft years match up. Browner and White both entered the NFL in 2005, while Sherman and Jones entered the league in 2011. Of course, the Seattle players took a much different — and at times more difficult — route to stardom.
While White and Jones were both first rounders and started nearly as soon as each entered the league, Browner went undrafted out of Oregon State, while Sherman was a fifth-round pick out of Stanford. Browner toiled around the league for two seasons before leaving for the Canadian Football League for four seasons. Seattle head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider bailed him out of the Great White North with a three-year, $1.29 million contract in 2011. At this point, that seems like chump change for the 2011 Pro Bowler.
Perhaps it’s the fact that both players had to take a more difficult route to the NFL that makes them so aggressive, so physical on the outside for opposing wide receivers. The constant scuffle between Browner and Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon was well documented last Sunday, and eventually led to a game-ending shoulder injury for the Redskins’ wide receiver.
That’s not to say, of course, that White and Jones try less because they were more highly regarded coming out of Alabama-Birmingham and Alabama, respectively. White and Jones present the most formidable matchup at receiver in the entire NFL. Jones was named a Pro Bowler, and White should have been. Together, they combined for 11 100-yard receiving games. They finished with 2,549 yards and 17 touchdowns between the two of them. That’s more receiving touchdowns than the Browns, Jets, Dolphins, Cardinals and Chiefs, and just 200 less yards than Minnesota and Kansas City had as a team.
But if anyone can stop them, Sherman and Browner present the best chance.
While the Falcons had the most 100-yard receiving games by a wide receiver this year with 13, Seattle allowed a fifth-best five 100-yard receiving games. And that was facing a murderer’s row of wide receivers.
Sherman and Browner held Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Crabtree under 100 yards twice each, and Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Steve Smith, Calvin Johnson and Percy Harvin under 100 yards as well.
The five receivers that did top 100 yards this season against Seattle were Wes Welker and Davone Bess (slot receivers facing off against Marcus Trufant), Titus Young, Brandon Marshall and Stevie Johnson (in one of the four games when Browner was suspended for a violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy).
The Falcons went 13-3 this season, and nine of those victories came when one or more receivers went off for over 100 yards. The Falcons lost their last game of the season against Tampa Bay while Jones and White were each held under 100 yards.
For Atlanta, without much of a rushing offense, their team depends on White, Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan to get the job done on offense. If Sherman and Browner can shut down the outside part of the field, they’ll be left relying on Michael Turner in the running game and Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas in the passing game.
The Seattle linebackers and safeties match up very well against tight ends, and if there’s any weak spot in the Seahawks’ defense, it comes at slot corner with Trufant. Luckily for Seattle, Douglas ranked 29th among wideouts in yards out of the slot.
While the Seahawks’ pass rush and run defense may suffer with Chris Clemons out with a torn ACL, if Sherman and Browner can continue their physical play, this will be a tough game to win for Atlanta throwing to White and Jones.
Among the receivers who were able to best Sherman and Browner this season, Buffalo’s Johnson may be the most similar. Neither White or Jones are as physical as Marshall and Detroit’s Young was able to go off because of the attention paid to Megatron.
The Seattle cornerbacks may be competing with the likes of Chicago, Houston and Denver for best cornerback tandem in the league, but there’s no doubt they match up to Atlanta best. Both players are 6-foot-3 or over, and there’s no two players more physical at the line of scrimmage lined up outside at corner.
Neither player has blazing 4.3 40-yard dash-type speed, but they make up for it with their size, strength and smarts. Sherman was the top-rated cornerback on Pro Football Focus this season. He allowed just 41 receptions on 87 targets for 634 yards and two touchdowns. He picked off eight passes and had 15 passes defended, according to Pro Football Focus — second in the league in both categories.
While Sherman’s boisterous nature may have fan bases of numerous teams hating him, there’s no doubt that he backs up his talk with his play on the field. After all, his quarterback rating against this season was just 41.4. Basically, when a quarterback decided to throw to him, they turned into Matt Leinart — the NFL version, of course.
With Sherman and Browner on the corners, it may be wise for Atlanta to alter their game plan. They’ve been allowed to depend on White and Jones to get open all season for Ryan, but it won’t be so easy against Seattle. If Ryan decides to take the risk of throwing against Sherman — who allowed just one reception on four targets for three yards against Washington — he may find his picture in a Sherman tweet with the words “U MAD BRO?” plastered over it.