8:15 PM EST, NBC – Line: Seahawks -8, Over/Under: 44
After a long Regular Season littered with highs and lows, the 2016 campaign will come to an end for one team, while the next moves on to fight another day as the Seattle Seahawks host the Detroit Lions in the NFC Wild Card from CenturyLink Field. If we could pick one song to describe the Lions’ (9-7, 2nd in NFC North) long trek to this point, we believe that Livin’ on the Edge would be an appropriate selection, for this team lived on the precipice of disaster virtually every week of the season. Jim Caldwell’s charges became masters of pulling out close victories, as thirteen of their contests were decided by seven points or less, with Detroit trailing in the Fourth Quarter of all but one of their nine victories, which just so happens to be an NFL Record. In a league in which a simple bounce of the ball can influence so much, it’s remarkable that this team was able to churn out so many clutch performances week in and week out. On one hand, they could’ve been a 12-4 team, yet on the other they could’ve gone 6-10. However, it may seem that their luck (if you wish to call it that) has finally run out, for with their first Division Title in their grasp (which would’ve been their first since 1992), the Lions dropped each of their final three games on the schedule, concluding with a disappointing 31-24 loss at home to bitter rivals Green Bay, which subsequently sealed the latter’s claim to the NFC North. So just what the hell happened to these guys, you ask? Well, look no further to the man under Center for your answer. To the surprise of many, Matthew Stafford (65.3% 4,327 YDS, 24 TD, 10 INT) put together arguably his finest campaign since entering the league back in 2009, doing so directly after the abrupt retirement of perennial Pro Bowl Receiver Calvin Johnson, posting a career-high in Quarterback Rating (70.1), while tying the league record with eight Fourth Quarter Comebacks. As interesting as it sounds, the 28-year old seemed to actually see the field better without the artist formally known as Megatron, literally carrying an Offense in which the margin for error was extremely thin given their lack of any semblance of a running game to lean on. Detroit ranked thirtieth in rushing yards (81.9), twenty-sixth in rushing touchdowns (nine) and twenty-seventh in Yards per Carry (3.7). Injuries to Tailbacks such as Theo Riddick (Wrist) and Ameer Abdullah (Foot) have absolutely decimated the Backfield, leaving Stafford and Co. to utilize a shorter passing game to supplement the lack of rushing production. While this approach was actually working for the majority of the term, everything changed when the signal-caller tore a ligament on the Middle Finger of his Throwing Hand in the latter stages of a 20-17 victory over the Chicago Bears. Stafford was forced to wear an altered protective glove on his hand (including a splint on his finger), and needless to say, the adjustment has been met with very mixed results; in the thirteen games preceding the injury, No. 9 completed 66.7% of his passes for 265.2 Yards per Game on 7.37 Yards per Attempt, with twenty-two touchdowns to just seven interceptions, but over the course of the final three games of the Regular Season he saw a significant drop-off, completing just 60.3% of his attempts for an average of 293.3 Yards per Game on 6.98 Yards per Attempt, with a pair of touchdowns compared to three interceptions. So with that in mind, is there any wonder that Detroit has since lost their last three games? Essentially, he can’t properly grip the ball as he’s accustomed to, throwing it without putting his ailing finger on it, which is playing havoc with his accuracy. This does not bode well entering tonight’s meeting with the Seahawks, who even without a prominent member of their vaunted Legion of Boom, are arguably the most formidable Defense left in the Playoffs. It’s cruel fate indeed, for just three weeks ago the Lions were in line for a Division Title with an outside chance of earning a home game coupled with a bye in the First Round. Instead, they get a trip to CenturyLink Field. Unfortunately for Caldwell, Stafford, and everyone in Detroit’s organization, they’re in all likelihood going to have to wait a bit longer to get their first postseason victory since 1992.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks (10-5-1, 1st in NFC West) have returned to the Playoffs for a fifth consecutive season, and despite winning their third NFC West Title in four years, this is NOT a team without some serious issues that could very well threaten to derail their designs of competing for a third Super Bowl in four years. Yeah, we know, the Offensive Line is once again a mess, but then again what else is new? Seattle’s motley crew of Linemen struggled mightily in Pass Protection all year, as Russell Wilson (64.7% 4,219 YDS, 21 TD, 11 INT) admirably played through a litany of injuries early in the term, which have all but compromised one of his biggest assets, his mobility. Wilson was sacked forty-one times this season, and could only muster 259 rushing yards on seventy-two carries, both of which represent career-lows for the fifth-year veteran. A high ankle sprain, a badly sprained MCL, and a strained pectoral muscle each contributed to the heady Quarterback’s woes, but nothing more so than the five guys assigned to keep him upright. However, it should come as no surprise that it’s come to this, for the Seahawks have invested very little in this particular position group despite it being a persisting problem. In fact, Pete Carroll’s charges are the only team in the league to start not one, BUT TWO, Undrafted Free Agents at Left and Right Tackle. And while their Quarterback has been left running for his life far too often, the running game, which has been a staple of their offensive game-plan for years, has all but vanished. Like their counterpart tonight, injuries have leveled the Backfield, with the likes of Christine Michael (who was cut), Thomas Rawls, and promising rookie C.J. Prosise all missing extended time with an assortment of ailments. As a result, Seattle could only muster 99.4 Yards per Game (25th Overall) on 3.9 Yards per Carry (24th Overall), as they’ve struggled to effectively replace former Pro Bowler Marshawn Lynch, who retired during the Offseason. While simply sustaining drives has become a laborious task unto itself, there is no denying that the only reason that this team was able to get to this point was the excellent play of their Defense, which is once again one of the finest units in the league. As volatile as they can be at times, Pete Carroll’s crew are always capable of herculean efforts that can all but shut down the most potent offensive attacks; the Seahawks have allowed 18.3 points (3rd Overall) on just 318.7 Total Yards (5th Overall), including 225.8 yards against the pass (8th Overall) on 6.2 Net Yards per Attempt (15th Overall), and another 92.9 yards versus the run (7th Overall) on 3.4 Yards per Carry (1st Overall). However, this group suffered a HUGE loss in the form of perennial Pro Bowl Safety Earl Thomas’ (46 TKL, 2 INT, 10 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD) unfortunate broken leg, that apparently left arguably the league’s top centerfielder contemplating retirement. Few players are capable of covering as much ground as Thomas, who is absolutely essential to Carroll’s preferred Cover Three scheme, with his absence leaving Richard Sherman (58 TKL, 4 INT, 13 PD) and Co. exposed on the back end of the Secondary. Simply put, this guy is the difference between this Defense being Special and being very good, which is not what you want to hear when you’re sharing a Playoff Bracket with esteemed Quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, and the aforementioned Stafford, injured finger and all.