The Seahawks entered last season's playoffs as the NFL's stingiest defense, as they were again in 2013. They exited the postseason after allowing the Falcons to run up 30 points in their second-round game in Atlanta in January 2013. It was the most they had yielded all year. The Falcons' success stemmed, in some measure, from an offensive strategy that was as unabashed as it was unexpected. They had their quarterback, Matt Ryan, direct his passes early and often toward whichever receiver was covered by one Seahawks defender in particular. Ryan threw at the defender eight times, more than he has been targeted in any of the 18 games he has since played. The defender was Richard Sherman.

You are by now sick of watching replays of Sherman proclaiming, to Fox's Erin Andrews, that he is "the best corner in the game." That is something that he is not, according to most quantitative measures anyway, though he is close. The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks him sixth. According to STATS Inc., Sherman was burned -- meaning that he permitted a player he was covering to catch a pass -- 50.8 percent of the time this season, a strong rate but one that was exceeded by other top corners like the Broncos' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (38.1 percent), the Colts' Vontae Davis (42.7 percent), the Browns' Joe Haden (45.8 percent) and the Dolphins' Brent Grimes (50.5 percent).

Sherman is an elite cornerback. Roddy White, the Falcons receiver, conceded as much in the minutes after his team's victory against Sherman's Seahawks a year ago. Even so, White made sure to note, "He's no Revis," in reference to then-Jet and current Buccaneer Darrelle Revis. When Revis has two intact anterior cruciate ligaments, he remains the league's gold standard among corners, a player whose cover skills are so overwhelming that any gameplan predicated on targeting him would be both foolish and dangerous. "We got Pro Bowl players on this team, and we're not going to throw it to us because he's out there?" White asked, talking about Sherman. "Come on, man."
The Falcons made clear their intention of attacking Sherman on the very first play of last January's game, when Ryan threw deep down the right sideline to Julio Jones. Sherman knocked the pass away, but the Falcons were undaunted. Ryan quickly targeted Sherman's receiver -- sometimes Jones, sometimes White -- three more times, the third coming on the first play of the second quarter. Sherman, to that point, was holding his own -- none of the four passes had been completed -- but he clearly knew what was up, and expressed his take on it. After Ryan's fourth throw against him, he raised his finger to his temple, and twirled it.

Soon, though, Atlanta's plan paid off. With just under four and a half minutes remaining in the first half, Ryan dropped back from the Seahawks' 47 and lofted a pass high and deep over the middle toward White, who had gotten a step on -- who else? -- Sherman. Though Sherman tripped and fell at the 5, White clearly already had him beat, and he hauled in Ryan's pass in the end zone. White immediately turned around and gestured for Sherman to approach him, and then the receiver began jawing at him. "He's a bit of a talker, and I just asked him to talk to me for a little while," White would explain. "He didn't have too much to say to me after that play." In fact, all that Sherman seemed to do was clap.

White's touchdown gave the Falcons a 20-0 lead at the half. As it turned out, a late Russell Wilson comeback would mean that they would need every one of those points: the final score was 30-28. Atlanta did not do most of its damage against Sherman specifically. Aside from White's long catch, Ryan completed just one of the other seven throws he directed at the Seahawks' top corner, for 13 yards. But the White touchdown was crucial, and showed that Sherman can be beaten.