8:15 PM EST, FOX – Line: Cowboys -1.5, Over/Under: 43
The latter of Saturday’s pair of Wild Card matchups features two teams that overcame rough starts to build considerable momentum, as the Seattle Seahawks meet the Dallas Cowboys in a rematch from a previous affair, this time from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. All things considered, 2018 was supposed to be a rebuilding season for the Seahawks (10-6, 2nd in NFC West), who parted ways with a slew of prominent members from their vaunted Legion of Boom Defense that had defined the franchise over the previous six years, not to mention a number of longtime Assistant Coaches. Pete Carroll clearly wanted a quieter, more unified lockerroom, but the general expectation was that the collective play on the football field would suffer as a result. Not so fast, folks, for it seems that Seattle has perfected the art of rebuilding on the fly. Carroll’s charges got off to a slow start, dropping each of their first two outings of the campaign, but quickly rounded into shape, winning ten of their final fourteen games, including six of their last seven heading into the Playoffs, with that lone defeat coming in Overtime (a puzzling 23-26 loss at the San Francisco 49ers). Over the last seven contests, they’ve averaged 29.9 Points per Game on 360.0 Total Yards, all the while enjoying a very healthy Turnover Differential of Plus-8. That last bit has played a huge role in their success overall this season, for no team in the league has committed fewer Turnovers than these guys (10), who’ve enjoyed a Plus-15 Differential.
It’s very much been a case of getting back to basics for the Seahawks, who were so successful from 2012 to 2016 utilizing the tried and true efficient formula of pounding the football offensively and playing stout defensively. With a cadre of rushers, Seattle led the NFL in Rushing Yards, churning out a staggering 160.0 Yards per Game on the ground, with the unheralded Chris Carson registering a career-high 1,151 Yards and Nine Touchdowns on 4.7 Yards per Carry, as one of four different players to rack up over 300 Rushing Yards. Of course, Russell Wilson (65.6%, 3,438 YDS, 6.47 NY/A, 35 TD, 7 INT, 65.1 QBR) factored into the Rushing Attack rather heavily as well, gaining 376 Yards on 5.6 Yards per Attempt, in what was quietly an MVP-caliber season for the veteran Quarterback. Their cumulative success on the ground allowed new Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to employ more Play-Action, which was invaluable for an Offense that despite attempting the fewest passes in the league (427), ranked fifth in Net Yards per Attempt (6.47), with Wilson ranking Fifth Overall in Touchdown Passes (35). Defensively, without many of the familiar faces that have headlined them for years, the ‘Hawks did very well for themselves, relinquishing 21.7 Points per Game (11th Overall) on 353.3 Total Yards (16th Overall), forcing Twenty-Six Turnovers (10th Overall), including Fourteen Recovered Fumbles (1st Overall), and Forty-Three Sacks (13th Overall). Veteran Middle Linebacker Bobby Wagner (138 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 11 PD, 1 TD) remains one of the finest at his position, while Defensive Backs Shaquil Griffin (59 TKL, 3 FL, 2 INT, 8 PD) and Bradley McDougald (78 TKL, 4 TFL, 3 FF, 1 FR, 3 INT, 9 PD) along with Defensive Linemen Frank Clark (42 TKL, 10 TFL, 14.0 SK, 2 FF, 4 FR, 1 INT, 2 PD) and Jarran Reed (50 TKL, 12.0 TFL, 10.5 SK, 2 FR) each flourished in expanded roles.
And speaking of roles, this unit played no small part in the Seahawks’ previous victory over the Cowboys, a 24-13 drubbing that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate. Back in Week Three, Wilson & Co. were looking to shake off two early losses, and what better way of doing so than by taking advantage of the raucous crowd at Century Link Field? The Twelfth Man was in full effect in that Home Opener, with the hosts jumping out to an early 17-3 lead at Halftime, before ending the day relegating Dallas to 303 Total Yards, 3-of-13 on Third Down, and making life generally miserable for opposing Quarterback Dak Prescott, whom they sacked five times (31 YDS Lost) and intercepted twice. Offensively, Seattle only posted 293 Total Yards, but controlled the Time of Possession (32:44) by rushing for 113 Yards and a Touchdown on Thirty-Nine Carries, with the aforementioned Carson gaining 102 Yards on Thirty-Two of those Attempts. Wilson judiciously probed the visitor’s Defense, completing 16-of-26 Passes for 192 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, hitting Tyler Lockett (57 REC, 965 YDS, 16.9 Y/R, 10 TD) for a gamebreaking 52-Yard Strike shortly before Halftime.
Meanwhile, it’s been the tale of two seasons for the Cowboys (10-6, 1st in NFC East), who also underachieved mightily throughout the first half of the season, only to catch fire after a key midseason acquisition. Dallas spent much of their first seven games searching for consistency, particularly from an Offense that was sorely lacking in the way of playmakers in the Passing Game after parting ways with a number of prominent members. Jason Garrett’s charges entered their Bye Week at a middling 3-4, with many in the media calling for the Head Coach’s job, while proclaiming third-year Quarterback Dak Prescott (67.7%, 3,885 YDS, 6.08 NY/A, 22 TD, 8 INT, 58.6 QBR) an overrated byproduct of the franchise’s relentless hype machine. The criticism, while harsh, was justified given the Offense’s miserable play at that point; Dallas averaged just 20.0 Points per Game on 318.7 Total Yards, including a scant 183.1 Passing Yards. Granted, there were more than a few circumstances that led to their struggles on this side of the football aside from the dearth of Receivers, with injuries and inexperience afflicting their vaunted Offensive Line, which in turn had an adverse effect on the playcalling. With Defenses loading the Line of Scrimmage in an attempt to stunt the Rushing Attack, Prescott struggled completing 62.1% of his Attempts for just 1,417 Yards on 6.22 Net Yards per Attempt, with Eight Touchdowns in comparison to Four Interceptions. All Quarterbacks need help from their Supporting Cast, but few benefit more than this guy, and fortunately for he, Garrett and all other parties involved, their bombastic owner, Jerry Jones arrived to save the day during that Bye Week, acquiring former Pro Bowl Receiver Amari Cooper from the Oakland Raiders.
It’s rare that a midseason trade of this magnitude occurs, let alone works out in such a manner, but that’s exactly what happened with Cooper’s addition, which served as the catalyst for the Cowboys’ run to an NFC East Championship. Though he fell out of favor in Oakland, Cooper fit in almost immediately in Dallas, providing Garrett and Prescott with a versatile weapon that revolutionized their Passing Attack. After losing to the Titans in their first outing after the Bye, this team proceeded to win all but one of their final eight contests, with the Offense accelerating at 23.1 Points per Game on a much-improved 370.5 Total Yards, with 253.8 Yards of that figure being charged to Prescott and the Passing Game. During that stretch, the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year flipped the proverbial switch, completing 71.6% of his Attempts for 2,225 Yards on 7.0 Net Yards per Attempt, with Twelve Touchdowns opposed to only Three interceptions. Cooper’s impact came in the form of Fifty-Three Receptions for 725 Yards and Six Touchdowns in just Nine Games. His presence allowed Garrett and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to really open things up, which coincidentally opened up precious space for Ezekiel Elliott (304 CAR, 1,434 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 6 TD) and the Running Game to operate; the NFL’s leading rusher too kicked things into higher gear once Cooper came aboard, rushing for 754 Yards and Three Touchdowns, while adding another 341 Receiving Yards and Two Scores to his ledger over the final eight games.
While the Offense took a few months to really get things going, the Defense has been beyond solid throughout the campaign for the Cowboys. One of the most significant additions to any Coaching Staff this season, was Garrett prying Kris Richard away from Seattle, where he served as the Seahawks’ Defensive Coordinator from 2015 to 2017. Richard, who shares those same responsibilities with the venerable Rod Marinelli, has transformed this young unit into one of the most improved in the league. On the season, Dallas has relegated opponents to 20.3 Points per Game (6th Overall) on 329.3 Total Yards (7th Overall), including 234.7 Yards against the Pass (13th Overall) on 6.5 Net Yards per Attempt (15th Overall), along with 94.6 Yards versus the Run (5th Overall) on 3.8 Yards per Carry (5th Overall), while really stiffening up in the Red Zone, allowing a Touchdown on just 51.0% of their opponents’ Drives (7th Overall). Up until the final game of the season, a 36-35 victory over the New York Giants, this group was the only team in the NFL yet to give up Thirty Points in a game. Young Linebackers Jaylon Smith (122 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 4.0 SK, 2 FF, 2 FR, 4 PD) and Leighton Vander Esch (140 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 2 INT, 7 PD) look like stalwarts for years to come, while Edge Rusher Demarcus Lawrence (64 TKL, 15.0 TFL, 10.5 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD) has wrecked havoc in the Backfield all year long and looks to be in line for a very lucrative payday as Free Agency looms.