The Seattle Seahawks visit the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, trying to become the first ever NFC team to earn a trip to three consecutive Super Bowls. It’s a rematch of the December 6 matchup that saw the Seahawks trounce the Vikings 38-7.
In that Week 13 romp, quarterback Russell Wilson threw for three touchdowns and rookie running back Thomas Rawls rushed for 101 yards and another touchdown. On the defensive side of the ball, the Seahawks were every bit as dominant, holding Adrian Peterson to only 18 yards on eight carries and not allowing the Vikings offense a single point.
Rematches in the NFL often produce entirely different results. What will Sunday’s playoff game produce? Below is a quick guide of what to watch for.
When the Seahawks have the ball
In Week 13, the Vikings went into the game without nose tackle Linval Joseph, and quickly lost linebacker Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith to injuries in the first quarter. As a result, the Vikings had to play almost the entire game without their most important players at each level of the defense.
The Seahawks quickly capitalized, with Rawls and Wilson practically producing at will until shutting things down after the third quarter, already safely up 35-7.
Sunday, Rawls will be missing, the casualty of a broken ankle suffered in mid-December. But, Marshawn Lynch will likely return to his accustomed starting position, suiting up for the first time in nearly two months after undergoing abdominal surgery.
With weather forecasts calling for sub-zero temperatures, Lynch and the Seahawks running game could become critically important, particularly if Joseph can’t go (he missed the Packers’ finale on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers). If Lynch shows some rust, the Seahawks will be dependent on Christine Michael and Bryce Brown, both less than ideal alternatives.
In the passing game, look for Wilson to hit short and intermediate routes, with receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse running seam routes and more than a few pick plays. Wilson will give an occasion deep look, and his running ability on designed rollouts will pressure the Vikings’ linebackers and defensive backs to hold coverages.
Wilson’s ability to scramble on third down will be important for the Seahawks to convert and keep the offense on the field.
When the Vikings have the ball
After a little bit of a slow start, the Seahawks defense has become a beast of late, allowing just four offensive touchdowns over the last five games. For the season, they finished second in the NFL in total defense (yards per game), second in passing defense (yards per game), and first in rushing defense (yards per game).
In Week 13, they dominated the Vikings offense, keeping them out of the end zone and limiting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to one of his worst performances of the year, netting just 118 yards and a quarterback rating of 55.4.
Peterson will again be a key to the outcome, and he’ll enter the game somewhat limited by an undisclosed back injury. The Vikings will look to get him and the rushing game started early, and they’ll stick with the run for as long as they can. Linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Kam Chancellor (if he’s healthy and suits up) will try to take the game out of Peterson’s hands by limiting his success on early downs, forcing the Vikings into passing situations behind schedule in the down and distance. It’s in those circumstances where the Seahawks are built to succeed, with strong pass rushes on the edge with Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin and Cliff Avril. Then, there’s Earl Thomas III and Richard Sherman shutting down the third and final layer.
Other than the passing game, perhaps no part of either teams’ game plans will be more affected by the weather than on special teams, where kickers will be kicking hard, frozen footballs throughout the game.
Steven Hauschka had another standout year for the Seahawks, hitting 29 of 31 field goal attempts, including all six from 50 yards or further, and converting 40 of 44 extra points. For the Vikings, Blair Walsh has been steady, hitting 34 of 39 field goal attempts and converting 33 of 37 points after touchdowns. Hauschka has the stronger leg, and he’s a proven clutch performer in the playoffs.
Both teams have excellent returners. Rookie Tyler Lockett has been spectacular for the Seahawks, averaging 9.5 yards per punt return and 25.8 yards per
kickoff return, and returning both a punt and a kickoff each for touchdowns (to go along with his six touchdown receptions as a receiver). Cordarrelle Patterson excels returning kickoffs for the Vikings, averaging 31.8 yards per return, with two touchdowns, including a 101-yard touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 13.
Like all playoff games, this one will likely be determined by turnovers, penalties and big plays, and their resulting affect on field position. A big wildcard in this wildcard playoff game will be the weather and its impact.
Scoring will likely be a premium, so look for the better third-down defense to win set the tone. On paper, that’s the Seahawks, 21-13.
Feature Photo Credit: Ann Heisenfelt
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