By MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
FLOWERY BRANCH — After the Falcons earned the NFC’s top playoff seed on Saturday night, coach Mike Smith didn’t plan on watching the rest of the conference play on Sunday.
He figured there’s no use in checking in on Atlanta’s competition until the picture gets clearer.
“I don’t try to watch scoreboards,” Smith said the day after the Falcons won 31-18 at Detroit. “It’s going to fall into place. … There is a lot of football to be played. A lot of things happen this week and next week as far as who plays who and who plays where.”
Atlanta is the only team in the NFC that already knows the “where” part. The Falcons, on either Jan. 12 or 13, will play host to the lowest-seeded NFC team to advance from first round of the playoffs the week before.
The rest of the NFC contenders are still jockeying for position.
The Packers and 49ers are vying for the other first-round bye. The Packers can finish no worse than the third seed, which means Atlanta has no chance of playing them until the NFC championship game. The 49ers could slide to the No. 5 seed but it’s unlikely.
So the Falcons’ first playoff opponent figures to be one of four teams: Seahawks, Vikings, Redskins or Bears. Of those teams, the Seahawks could present their stiffest challenge.
Seattle has won six of seven games while posting big offensive numbers in their second-half surge. The Seahawks damaged the 49ers’ status as favorites to win the NFC championship with an impressive 42-13 romp on Sunday night.
Seattle sliced through the NFC’s top scoring defense and now has outscored its last three opponents 150-30. The Seahawks, like the past two Super Bowl champions, appear to be surging at the right time.
“We knew we were capable of doing this,” Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. “We had no doubt. … It took time because we’re a young team. We had to mature. We had to grow together, build that chemistry, build that trust out there on the field.”
The Seahawks can win the NFC West if they beat the Rams on Sunday and the 49ers lose to the Cardinals. But they most likely will be the No. 5 seed in the NFC with a road game at the eventual NFC East champion.
The Seahawks certainly are capable of defeating either the Redskins or Bears in the wild card round. If they do so and the No. 6 NFC seed doesn’t spring an upset, the Falcons would open the playoffs against the hottest team in the NFC.
Seattle is among the wild-card contenders that is best capable of exploiting three of Atlanta’s weaknesses: running the ball, stopping the run and slowing mobile quarterbacks.
But the Falcons’ other potential foes also could present problems.
The Vikings and Redskins both boast strong ground games. The Vikings are No. 6 in the NFL against the run and the Bears have allowed just six rushing touchdowns all season.
Washington’s Robert Griffin III is another quarterback who can break off big gains. The Falcons won 24-17 at Washington on Oct. 7 after they knocked Griffin out of the game with a head injury.
Of course, Atlanta’s playoff opposition will have to deal with a passing game at top form and a defense that can force turnovers in bunches. The Falcons have been tough at home — they have an 11-game home win streak — and will have the benefit of relaxing at home while watching their next opponent try to earn a date in the Georgia Dome.
“I think it’s going to be great to have a long home stint for this playoff game,” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. He quickly added: “Playoff games.”
Atlanta reached its primary regular-season goal of making its playoff opponents come to the Dome. The Falcons say they are ready for all challengers.
“They are going to see a team that is prepared,” Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “They are going to see a team that plays 60 minutes. And they are going to have to give us their best shot. We are a very confident team.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.