Seattle Seahawks @ Minnesota Vikings
1:00 PM EST, NBC – Line: -4, Over/Under: 40
Get ready for sub-zero temperatures folks, as the Minnesota Vikings host the Seattle Seahawks in the first of a pair of NFC Wild Card matchups, in the first outdoor postseason contest in Minnesota since 1976. To give you an idea of just how long that really was, Bud Grant was stalking the sidelines, while Fran Tarkenton was taking snaps under Center. There was a reason that the Vikings (11-5, 1st in NFC North) had played all their home games at the Minneapolis Metrodome from 1982 to 2010: apparently it gets very cold in Minnesota. With that said, today’s temperature around kickoff is expected to be within-3 to 2 degrees, with a nasty wind chill of -16. So, yeah, it’s going to be one of those kinds of games in what is yet another Regular Season rematch. For Mike Zimmer and Co., they sure as hell hope that the second verse isn’t the same as the first; when these teams met back on December 6th, the Seahawks stormed in TFC Bank Stadium, humbling the hosts in a 38-7 beatdown, in which visiting side outgained their opponent by a ridiculous 308 total yards of offense. It was indeed a case of a team riding high crashing back down to Earth, as the Vikings, who had won six out of their previous seven outings entering that showdown, were introduced to reality. Nothing that Zimmer’s charges managed to put together worked, as the rushing attack led by Adrian Peterson could only muster eighteen yards on eight carries, while the defense was absolutely shredded for 433 total yards, including 173 on the ground. Sophomore Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater struggled mightily on 17-of-28 passing (60.7%), for 118 yards and an interception, while sustaining four sacks for a loss of twenty-four yards. In fact, the Vikings’ lone score on that day was a Cordarrelle 101-yard kickoff return with forty-eight seconds left to play in the third stanza. However, that loss served as a wake-up call for this young team, who after nearly toppling Arizona on a Thursday Night (23-20), strung together three consecutive victories by a combined score of 101-47, on their way to their first NFC North Title since 2009. Despite the presence of Peterson (1,485 yards), who won his third career League Rushing Title, the weight of Minnesota’s fortunes will sit squarely on the shoulders of Bridgewater, who at some point must shed the dreaded Game Manager label that he’s earned thus far, and become a Playmaker. The final pick in the First Round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Bridgewater has earned his fair share of detractors courtesy of his conservative play. In truth, it’s not all his fault, for his protection up front has left a lot to be desired (44 sacks, 5th-Most Overall), forcing Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner to turn to more quick, three-step drops designed to get the ball out of his Quarterback’s hands quickly. However, these pass plays often end up in short to intermediate plays, with Bridgewater rarely stretching the field; No. 5 ended the Regular Season with a Net Yards per Attempt (which compensates for yards loss from sacks) of 5.96, ranking twenty-ninth among starting Quarterbacks in 2015. Furthermore, with just fourteen passing touchdowns, the Vikings’ Offense ranked next-to-last in scores of that variety. With Seattle boasting one of the stingiest pass defenses in the league, coupled with the frigid temperatures expected to be in play, don’t expect him to get a lot of opportunities to make plays downfield, but when he does, he must capitalize on them, or Minnesota’s long-awaited postseason return to the outdoors will be it’s last.
Meanwhile, as they’ve done in each of the past two years, few teams in enter the Playoffs with as much momentum as Seattle (10-6, 2nd in NFC West). After a disappointing 2-4 start to the campaign, the Seahawks proceeded to win eight of their final ten outings, including a 36-6 decimation of the NFC West Champion Cardinals in Arizona to cement their fourth consecutive trip to the postseason. Russell Wilson continued his aerial assault from the pocket, throwing for 197 yards and three touchdowns in little over a half of play, in which his team had established a comfortable 27-point lead. That performance put a bow on a torrid, seven-week stretch in which he threw for 1,906 yards and a staggering twenty-four touchdowns and just one interception. Hell, he even ran for another 198 yards and score too, putting him in a company of one; by the end of the Regular Season, Wilson (4,024 passing yards, 553 rushing yards) had become the first player in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 500 yards in the same season. Granted, his evolution was very much out of necessity; Seattle’s Offensive Line was a well-documented mess over the first half of the season, with many of their number playing out of position, and some even making the transition from the opposite side of the ball. Wilson was sacked forty-five times this season, and pressured on virtually twice that number, flushing the Pro Bowler out of the pocket serving as the impetus for many of his rushing yards. The Backfield also served as a proverbial revolving door, as Marshawn Lynch (417 yards, 3 TDs) was relegated to just seven appearances thanks to ankle, groin, and most recently a Sports Hernia, which will sideline him for today’s game. His replacement, Thomas Rawls (830 yards, 4 TDs) exploded from obscurity to spearhead the rushing attack, but a broken ankle would end his season prematurely. Look for Christine Michael (192 yards) to get the majority of the carries today, after rushing for 102 yards in last week’s victory over the Cardinals. Michael, who was claimed off the Practice Squad by the Cowboys, was acquired after Dallas released him in Mid-December, and could serve as an unlikeliest of heroes today, in a game that figures to see plenty of rushing offense. Of course, you can’t talk about Pete Carroll’s charges for long without mentioning their staunch defense. While Wilson was busy earning the media’s attention with his historic campaign, the vaunted Legion of Boom made a bit of history themselves; in allowing 17.3 points per game, the Seahawks became the first team to lead the NFL in scoring defense since the Cleveland Browns in 1957 (back when the league consisted of just a dozen teams). Indeed, earlier reports of this unit’s demise were premature (thanks in large part to a series of blown fourth quarter leads), as Seattle held all but three of their final ten opponents to thirteen points or fewer. On the season, they yielded just 291.8 total yards (2nd Overall), including 210.3 yards against the pass (2nd Overall) on 5.8 net yards per attempt (5th Overall), along with 81.5 yards versus the run (1st Overall) on 3.6 yards per carry (4th Overall), all the while racking up twenty-three turnovers (16th Overall) and thirty-seven sacks (T-17th Overall). Defensive Backs Richard Sherman (2 INTs, 14 PDs), Earl Thomas (5 INTs, 9 PDs), and Kam Chancellor (2 INTs, 4 PDs) are about as good as it gets in the Secondary, while Michael Bennett (10.0 Sacks, 2 FF) and Cliff Avril (9.0 Sacks, 2 FF) are terrors in the trenches.
Green Bay Packers @ Washington Redskins
4:40 PM EST, FOX – Line: Pick ‘Em, Over/Under: 47
In the final Wild Card Weekend matchup, the Green Bay Packers travel to the Nation’s Capital to face the Washington Redskins in the only of this weekend’s contests that is NOT a rematch of a previous clash. However, that doesn’t mean that this particular tilt is without substance, for there is plenty to discuss in terms of both teams. In the case of the Packers (10-6, 2nd NFC North), it’s been a tale of two seasons; Mike McCarthy’s charges raced out of the gates to a 6-0 start, in which their high-flying offense was lighting up their opponents, courtesy of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers’s aerial assault, but after their Bye Week stumbled to the finish line with a 4-6 resume’. So what in the name of Bart Starr happened to the Packers, you ask? Well… how much time do you have? It would be easy to simply state that injuries have ravaged this prolific offense, which lead the league in scoring last year (30.4), but now can only muster 23.0 points per game (16th Overall). It all began with leading Receiver Jordy Nelson (1,5189 yards, 13 TDs in 2014) tearing his ACL during the team’s first Preseason tilt in August, causing a ripple effect that wouldn’t be felt until November. Fellow Wideout Randall Cobb (829 yards, 6 TDs) sustained some maladies of his own, but has generally found performing harder when opposing defenses are focusing on him, while Davante Adams (483 yards, 1 TD) has been plagued by drops. With that said, the Backfield has experienced it’s share of instability, as Eddie Lacy has underwhelmed greatly in his third campaign as a pro. Many around the league predicted big things out of the Tailback, but after arriving to Training Camp overweight and dealing with a never-ending series of ailments, Lacy could manage just 946 total yards and five touchdowns, which was well below the 1,566 yards from scrimmage that he amassed in 2014. His inconsistency led McCarthy to take a large portion of his workload and give it to James Starks (993 total yards, 5 TDs), who was a huge component of the team’s run to a Super Bowl back in 2010. With that said, the biggest issue has been the Offensive Line, which has definitely compromised the play of their MVP Quarterback. Starting Tackles David Bakhtiari (Ankle) and Bryan Bulaga (Ankle) have each missed their share of time with an assortment of injuries, with the status of both behemoths in question for today’s contest. Furthermore, virtually the entire interior of the Line is banged up to boot, with Corey Linsely (Ankle), T.J. Lang (Neck), Lane Taylor (Knee), and Josh Sitton (Back) all listed as Probable with various bumps and bruises. Of all the big men, Linsely’s absence has been the most significance, as the Starting Center has missed five games with a lingering ankle sprain, causing J. C. Tretter step in and lead the quintet of blockers. And in the midst of all this chaos, McCarthy wrestled play-calling duties from Offensive Coordinator Tom Clements, which hasn’t really had the desired effect; after scoring eighty-five points in the first three games since the change, Green Bay managed a mere twenty-one points over the final two outings to end the Regular Season. And where has this left Rodgers, you ask? The two-time MVP has seen precipitous decline across the board; apart from a consistently outstanding touchdown/interception ratio of 31/8, the 32-year old has seen his passing yardage decline to 238.8 yards per game, yards per attempt to 6.7, and net yards per attempt to 5.67, which all represent his lowest output since becoming a starter in 2008. Furthermore, he’s been sacked forty-six times (2nd-Most Overall), or in other words on 7.4% of his drop backs, the eleventh-highest such figure in the league. It’s safe to say, that if any other Quarterback was piloting this offense, then the Packers would be watching the Playoffs in the comfort of their homes…
Meanwhile, it’s been a very different story in the Nation’s Capital, as the Redskins (9-7, 1st in NFC East) caught fire down the stretch, winning five of their last six outings en route to their first NFC East Championship since 2012. Their miraculous story began with Head Coach Jay Gruden reversing course and proclaiming that Kirk Cousins would be the team’s Starting Quarterback moving forward after the polarizing Robert Griffin III suffered a concussion after a series off brutal hits in Washington’s first Preseason contest. Griffin versus Cousins had been a controversy that had lingered over this franchise for well over a year, with the second-skipper going with his gut and handing the reigns to the unheralded fourth-year signal-caller, who was due to become a Free Agent at the conclusion of 2015. That moved turned out to be the defining move of the campaign; Cousins can effectively name his price this offseason, putting forth a career year in which he completed a league-best 69.8% of his passes for a franchise record 4,166 yards (7.7 y/a), twenty-nine touchdowns and eleven interceptions, posting a QBR of 70.05. However, over the final eight games of the term he was on another level, throwing nineteen touchdowns opposed to just two interceptions, in which he led his team a 6-2 record. With Management reportedly willing to do anything to keep him in Washington, it remains to be seen what the 27-year old will do to ensure the franchise’s first postseason victory since 2005. Of course, it helps that the Redskins have also gotten healthier at the skill positions, with the return of DeSean Jackson (528 yards, 4 TDs) providing a dangerous deep threat, while the emergence of Jamison Crowder (604 yards, 2 TDs) and Jordan Reed (952 yards, 11 TDs) have really added depth to Gruden’s attack. Reed in particular has become a force at Tight End, reeling in five touchdowns over the final four games of the Regular Season. Ironically, the weakness that has imperiled their counterpart’s chances of success, has served as a foundation of fortune for the Redskins, for their Offensive Line has improved by leaps and bounds in 2015. Drafting Lineman Brandon Scherff with the Fifth Overall Pick in last May’s NFL Draft may not have been the fan’s choice or the sexy pick for a franchise that has oftentimes gone out of it’s way to select said players, but it was absolutely vital in solidifying a unit that had contributed mightily in the aforementioned Quarterback Controversy. A Tackle at the University of Iowa, Scherff slotted in at Guard from the get-go, starting all sixteen games, and providing a mauling presence on the interior of the Line, who along with last year’s tandem of Third Round Picks Morgan Moses and Spencer Long, and Pro Bowler Trent Williams, have provided Cousins with some solid pass protection (26 sacks). With that said, this group could stand to improve in run-blocking, for Gruden’s charges haven’t been very effective on the ground, averaging just 97.9 rushing yards (20th Overall) on3.7 yards per carry (30th Overall), with Alfred Morris (751 yards, 1 TD) and Matt Jones (794 total yards, 4 TDs) sharing the workload.