As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis.
Sure, listing Russell Wilson as Seattle's primary player to watch could be called a key to every game but let's dig deeper. The goal here is to identify three critical one-on-one matchups (that few others are talking about) which will likely determine whether or not the Seahawks emerge victorious.
Matchup No. 1: Seahawks DE Cliff Avril vs. Ravens LT James Hurst
Clearly, the most important player on the field for the Ravens will be the quarterback but whether John Harbaugh ultimately starts Matt Schaub or Jimmy Clausen may actually matter little because the Seahawks should be able to disrupt whoever is taking the snaps from center.
The Ravens placed oft-injured but legitimately talented left tackle Eugene Monroe on season-ending Injured Reserve on Saturday, meaning that the second-year pro Hurst will earn the start in his place. That pushes rookie Ricky Wagner into a starting role at right tackle. Neither possesses the foot speed or balance to handle Avril and Michael Bennett (and Bruce Irvin, Frank Clark and Cassius Marsh, for that matter). Seattle's pass rushers' eagerness to tee off against Baltimore's overmatched tackles may explain why Pete Carroll said Friday that the defensive linemen were leading the team this week in practice.
Harbaugh (and Baltimore offensive coordinator Marc Trestman) aren't likely to simply allow Seattle to attack the Ravens quarterbacks unmercifully. As such, to counter Seattle's advantage in athleticism up front, expect the Ravens to call a very conservative game plan full of runs and quick passes. If Baltimore attempts many five or seven step drops, the Ravens quarterbacks could be in real trouble.
Matchup No. 2: Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner vs. Ravens RB Javorius "Buck" Allen
Allen has performed well since taking over as Baltimore's starting running back with former Seahawk Justin Forsett sidelined for the year with a broken arm. He's likely to get plenty of opportunities Sunday with the Ravens expected to take a conservative approach with the football, meaning lots of runs and quick passes out of the backfield.
The 6-0, 221 pound Allen is a well-built back with the power and deceptive speed, due to a slashing running style. The Seahawks run defense is playing with great confidence after limiting Adrian Peterson to just 18 rushing yards in a dominant victory over the Minnesota Vikings a week ago. Allen is a talented runner but he perhaps presents the most difficult matchup as a receiver as his combination of body control and soft hands could make him critical to Baltimore's game plan.
Seattle's outside linebackers K.J. Wright and Irvin often match up with opposing running backs with Wright, in particular, faring well this season in this regard. Wagner hasn't performed at the same level this season after last year's breakout campaign but his instincts and closing speed could be shown this week against Baltimore's limited offense.
Matchup No. 3: Seahawks C Patrick Lewis vs. Ravens NG Brandon Wiilliams
Though there are plenty of factors that have come together to spark Seattle's current torrid play on the offensive side of the ball, the insertion of Lewis into the starting lineup certainly is one of them. Powerful, athletic and increasingly reliable with his line calls, Lewis has helped the Seahawks average 34.5 points over their past four games.
One of the knocks on Lewis is that at "just" 6-1, 311 pounds, he lacks the size scouts prefer. Rather than allow his relatively short, squatty frame to be a disadvantage, however, Lewis has won with pad level and leg drive to knock defenders off the ball and creating running room for Thomas Rawls to exploit up the middle.
Running up the middle against the Ravens, however, could prove quite difficult in "large" part due to Williams is also 6-1 but he's much wider (and stronger) than Lewis at 335 pounds. The former Missouri-Southern standout was unblockable, at times, at the Senior Bowl two years ago and his rapid development was what allowed the Ravens to trade former Pro Bowl nose guard Haloti Ngata to the Detroit Lions in the offseason.
The Seahawks shouldn't need many points to beat the Ravens but that doesn't mean they will be easy to come by. While Baltimore may be lacking weapons on offense, their defense is largely intact and is quite talented. Expect the announcers to focus on Baltimore's linebackers and given the talent the Ravens possess there, it's well deserved. For true enthusiasts of the battles in the trenches, however, take your eye off the ball and watch Lewis and Williams duke it out. It's a heavy-weight battle sure to entertain.